(The Center Square) – A proposed plan to expand affordable high-speed internet access and provide digital skills to all Washington residents, particularly those in unserved or underserved communities, has been released for public comment.
The 184-page “Draft Digital Equity Plan” was announced Thursday by the state Department of Commerce and Washington Broadband Office, which will host a series of free monthly webinars through December to discuss the plan and related workforce development.
The five-year action plan “identifies the needs and barriers of getting Washingtonians connected to the internet,” the agency said.
“Access to broadband is the single most important economic development tool in our toolkit right now, and the most necessary in our state,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in the draft’s executive summary.
The document says Washington consistently ranks among the best-connected states in the nation, but over 236,000 locations within the state still lack broadband service. There are multiple reasons for the disparities: lack of broadband infrastructure, lack of access to digital hardware, inability to pay, inability to determine or navigate available resources, or a combination of those circumstances.
The state has already taken steps to address some of those issues. Earlier this month, the Commerce department announced $14.5 million in grant funding to three community-based organizations to serve as “digital navigators” helping new internet users get online.
And in June, the Biden Administration announced that Washington will receive federal funding from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for broadband equity, access, and deployment to a wide range of populations: aging individuals, low-income households, rural residents, racial and ethnic minorities, military veterans, persons with disabilities, youth in foster care, and homeless and incarcerated persons.
Public input will help shape the state’s final “Digital Equity Plan,” which will be submitted to the NTIA by Dec. 1.
Within the first two years, the five-year draft proposal calls for increasing the number of free public Wi-Fi locations, increasing enrollment in subsidized broadband services in low-income communities, identifying service “gaps” within deprived populations, expanding availability and affordability of devices such as laptop computers and smart phones, providing in-person training, and developing public awareness campaigns to promote available services.
Over a three- to four-year period, the state will seek to increase broadband affordability and access to “hard-to-reach” populations and partner with internet service providers to promote cybersecurity standards.
Along with the state Broadband Office, the upcoming webinars will be co-hosted by the NTIA. Four one-hour online Zoom sessions are planned, each starting at 2 p.m. beginning on Wednesday, Sept. 27 and followed on Oct. 25, Nov. 22, and Dec. 27. They are free, but registration is needed to participate.
A trio of in-person information and comment sessions are also scheduled:
Kennewick: Sept. 26, 5 – 7 p.m.Southridge Sports and Events ComplexNumerica Pavilion Conference Room2901 Southridge Blvd.Burlington: Sept. 27, 5 – 7 p.m.Burlington Public LibrarySkagit River Side Room820 E. Washington Ave.Seattle: Sept. 28, 4 – 6 p.m.Seattle Central LibraryLevel 4, Room 11000 4th Ave.
Visit Internet for All in Washington for more information on planning efforts and updates.