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Hundreds of millions in broadband spending brings Pacific Northwest closer to closing digital divide

The Pacific Northwest is set to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in broadband funds from the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Business, health and political leaders say the investment is badly needed, and the money could spur economic development.

Data from the Federal Communications Commission and Census records show wide swaths of Idaho, Eastern Washington and Eastern Oregon, have inadequate internet service, or none at all. Many Native American Reservations are in the same straits, with little or slow access.

The Infrastructure and Jobs Act will invest at least $100 million dollars in each state to expand broadband access. Idaho Senator Mike Crapo, one of only two Northwest Republicans to support the bill in Congress, has been working to fund rural broadband for years. He says broadband is not only needed to give rural business owners the same e-commerce opportunities as those in cities, but for education and healthcare needs as well.

"We need to help the people who live in our rural communities get access to these things that the rest of America often takes for granted at this point, he said."

Crapo argues the infrastructure bill will jumpstart growth without increasing inflation, and notes it paid for with reallocated COVID-19 aid funds.

He said Congress is providing the money; actually improving broadband service will most likely be up to state and tribal governments.

Eric Forsch, the broadband development manager for the Idaho Department of Commerce, says the state has worked during the pandemic to expand broadband access, connecting or improving access for about 30,000 Idahoans.

He says it’s hard to know this early how many people could be connected with the federal infrastructure money. Supply chain issues, and the potential high costs of connecting communities in rough terrain will also play a role. Based on past efforts, Forsch estimates tens of thousands of people in Idaho rural communities will have better access – or internet for the first time.

"I mean I think it’s essential,” he said. “It's just as essential as water or power is. The requirements the infrastructure put in place will really provides some resiliency to these communities and that's crucial."

Idaho Hospital Association president Brian Whitlock says better internet service could make health care more accessible. It may make it easier for hospitals to check patient records, and exchange test results and other medical data. Whitlock says it could also lead to more preventative care, and make it easier for people in rural communities to access a specialist.

"Somebody in Salmon, Idaho, would not have to drive six hours to get to Boise to see a dermatologist to determine whether or not something is cancerous on their skin,” Whitlock said. “An iPhone connected into the system can give that dermatologist the kind of clarity to look at something on somebody's skin hundreds of miles away and make a determination on what that is or isn't."

Increased connectivity will also likely affect education.

Terry Patton, the I-T director for Wellpinit School District, which serves the Spokane reservation, says only 10 to 15% of students have internet access at home. Many tribes, including the Spokane, are trying to build their own internet infrastructure using Federal COVID-19 aid. An additional $2 billion dollars of new spending in the infrastructure bill is set aside for tribes to continue that work.

Patton says teachers are now printing out most of their assignments, and often Facebook is the only way for the district to contact families after school. He says the work the tribe has already done, and the new resources, could create opportunities for students.

“This is a huge jump, and a giant step in the right direction,” Patton said. “so I think it will change the way things work.”

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funds are not yet available in communities, and the Federal Government has not yet released rules.

Forsch says there are a few things communities with internet access issues can do to prepare. He says people should start community conversations, and reaching out to their leaders now.

“Starting that process is really crucial because that way, when the money is ready, your community can be ready too,” Forsch said.

In addition to rural assistance, the infrastructure bill also sets aside money to aid families struggling to afford internet. About a quarter of the people in Idaho and Oregon are eligible, along with about nineteen percent of Washingtonians.

Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.
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