For years, the biggest issues in rural America have revolved around natural resources and access to wild areas. But Covid is bringing attention to another issue.
“When I first got here, I felt like I was the wallflower at the dance. Now I really feel like broadband is the prom king. It is the conversation piece now that everybody is looking to and trying to figure out," said Russ Elliott, the director of the Washington State Broadband Office.
Officials in small cities and towns have long sought better Internet service as part of their strategies to diversify and strengthen their local economies. But now, with so many children attending school virtually, good broadband service has become a must.
Elliott says getting service to hubs like Colville or Davenport may not be difficult. The issue is then finding the money to get high-speed Internet to individual homes out away from everything.
“I think rural America has been very aware of this. We’ve been struggling with our connectivity challenges in rural America based on those cost metrics, but Covid, what it’s done is it’s opened the eyes of urban America as well with some of the equity and inclusion metrics and affordability. When you start to have the volume of people that are now talking about broadband, it has definitely become the one silver lining out of this Covid challenge," he said.
Elliott says the federal government has recognized the problem and is making billions of dollars available for local communities. But the competition is fierce. He says his job is to help rural folks become better at making their cases when they apply for those grants. It starts with education.
“What is it we need? Speak intelligently about specifics. We are not anymore in a game of broad stroke policy about broadband. We are now in a door-to-door, street-to-street battle, trying to figure out exactly where those folks are that don’t have service or the quality of service they have is not conducive to today’s environment," he said.
Elliott’s office recently received about $200,000 from the Spokane non-profit Better Health Together. He says that money will fund broadband strategy projects in six eastern Washington counties, including the Spokane, Kalispel and Colville tribes.