Access to broadband is limited in much of rural Washington

Sometimes having an internet connection means sitting in your car outside the local library to pick up a wireless signal.

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The Whitman County Rural Library District's Farmington Library

Sometimes having an internet connection means sitting in your car outside the local library to pick up a wireless signal.

FARMINGTON, WASH.  —  Parked in her car outside the local library, Shelly Hansen uses her laptop to check e-mail, browse the Web and shop online.

Like others in this rural Whitman County town, Hansen sometimes uses the library’s wireless signal because her family has no access at home. Hansen said it is not uncommon to see other local residents sitting in their cars in the library’s parking lot, connecting to the free wireless.

“We just laugh at each other and smile,” she said.

Though the number is rising, only 60 percent of rural households have broadband internet access, according to a report released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Commerce. In urban areas, 70 percent of households have access to broadband.

“For those who don’t have it, there’s a serious chance that they’ll be left behind,” said Monica Babine, senior associate for digital inclusion at Washington State University Extension.

Hansen and her family are among nearly 150,000 households in Washington state that do not have broadband internet, according to a 2010 report by the Washington State Broadband Office (WSBO). Last year, the state received $244 million in federal stimulus money to expand broadband access in areas with high unemployment, which has funded projects across the state. Those projects include efforts to expand broadband access on tribal lands, in public housing developments, and in rural Washington counties such as Pend Oreille.

In 2001, Washington ranked fourth in the nation for broadband adoption, but by 2009, the state had sunk to 16th. State officials say the lack of fast internet access in rural Washington can stymie economic growth and further isolate small towns.

Regardless of public interest or how much people are willing to pay, the initial investment it would take for a company to bring high-speed internet to a rural area might be too costly, Babine said.

For example, in 2007, high school senior Jimmie Smith created a plan to measure broadband interest in his hometown Glenwood, Wash. But despite community support, the cost of bringing broadband to Glenwood was estimated to exceed $1 million.  

“It was a letdown because we’d made an effect, but it didn’t change anything,” Smith said. 

In small towns like Farmington, some rural residents opt to pay higher fees to satellite providers for a high-speed connection because going without internet is simply not an option. Nearly one-fourth of those who lack broadband say it is too expensive, according to the Commerce report.

But even for those who opt to pay, the service can be inadequate, said Amy Warwick, who pays $72 a month for satellite internet.

“It’s not everything they tell you it’s going to be,” said Warwick, whose family lives on a farm outside Oakesdale in Whitman County.  “We thought we’d be able to have unlimited access.”

Warwick said no one in the household is allowed to stream videos or download program updates because satellite providers restrict the amount of downloading per household.

Warwick said that when her satellite contract is up she plans to research new options available in her area that may be better. 

“If not then we’ll have to stick with what we have,” she said.  “Right now we’re just biding our time, paying the extra money.”


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