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The Impact – Broadband Expansion and the Digital Divide in Washington 

Mike McClanahan profile by Mike McClanahan

Three years ago legislators created the Washington State Broadband Office and set a requirement that all households in the state must have access to at least the minimum broadband speeds by 2024 and universal high speed broadband by 2028. Then COVID hit and the need for high speed internet became greater than ever.   

Broadband allowed students to join online classrooms, parents to work from home, and patients to consult with health care providers remotely. Without broadband some parents wound up driving their children to fast food parking lots or other Wi-Fi hotspots so they could do their school work. People who live in remote or sparsely populated areas may not have the option of high-speed internet because the infrastructure isn’t there. Even when there is a high speed internet connection available, families may not be able to afford to take advantage of broadband.

Last year new laws took effect that expanded the authority of nonprofit entities like ports and public utility districts to provide broadband internet service directly to homes. Public internet service providers are now poised to tap into the unprecedented amount of infrastructure funding up for grabs at the state and local level.

Mark Vasconi started a new role as director of the Washington State Broadband Office at the beginning of April. The agency is housed within the Washington State Department of Commerce and responsible for guiding the state’s broadband expansion campaign.

“If you’re a private entity, you’re going to have certain objections around publicly funded organizations competing with you and I think, you know, one can understand that. However, from the public side, if the private entity hasn’t been able, for really legitimate reasons, to extend service to a particular area, well, something has to be done,” said Vasconi. “And if the public entity can provide that service, then maybe that’s something that should be done.” 

“I also think that there can be certain instances where those things can work together,” said Vasconi.  “So if there is the ability for public grants to help provide the infrastructure then that does tend to help the business case for a private sector partner to come in and actually work with the public entity in order to do that.”

“One needs to understand that in providing broadband, it’s not just providing infrastructure. You also have to provide service. And that means customer facing activities, whether it be billing, customer care, it also means a reinvestment in the network at some pretty close intervals, as well as upgrading equipment, software upgrades, dealing with cyber, those are all things that are really important to consider,” said Vasconi.  “Across the country there’s been sort of a 50/50 chance of public entities doing well. I keep coming back, at least at this point, looking at a public-private partnership as something where the strength, the strengths of both entities, can come together to provide a sustainable service.”  

Vasconi says satellite and 5G data networks could provide high speed internet to previously unserved customers, but only in certain areas.  

“You don’t need fiber optic infrastructure in order to provide StarLink service, at least to the end user, because it’s satellite based. But that has certain restrictions. It really needs a very clean look into the sky. Parts of the state where we have a lot of vegetation that may be more problematic than in other parts of the state where you don’t have those issues,” said Vasconi. “With respect to certain cellular services like 5G or even some fixed wireless services, which is sort of an interesting extension of a cellular kind of service, you still need fiber. You may not need fiber all the way to the home, but you need fiber at least to a cell tower. And then from that cell tower, there can be coverage over a wireless link to the various devices that it can access. Those things help because you don’t need to bring fiber all the way to the house, but you still need to bring fiber to some proximity. And depending on the wireless technology that’s used, maybe that proximity is ten miles. If it’s 5G, it’s probably closer than ten miles, which is one of the issues with 5G, because it doesn’t have the reach that other versions of cellular technology have.” 

Mark Vasconi, Director of the Washington State Broadband Office, on The Impact April 20, 2022

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