WSU Extension, Dept. of Commerce partner to expand rural broadband access, equity

Washington State University

Community specialists with WSU Extension are partnering with the Washington State Broadband Office(WSBO) to enhance capacity for Washington communities, especially those in rural and remote areas. The goal is to provide better and more equitable access to reliable, high-speed internet.

Funded by the Washington State Department of Commerce, the one-year, $8 million statewide Broadband Action Team (BAT) Implementation and Support project aids county and community efforts to enhance internet access in underserved areas by providing training, planning support, and resources coordinated through Extension offices.

“As Washington state moves to ensure that all of our residents have reliable and equitable access to broadband service, community input is essential,” said Lisa Brown, Washington commerce director. “Identifying local needs and gaps will help guide us to highest impact broadband infrastructure investments. WSU Extension is uniquely positioned to assist communities in this grass-roots effort to define what they need, and we’re very pleased to partner in this important work to expand broadband access across the state.”

Under a contract finalized Aug. 9, Extension team members and funding will aid development of locally created plans that help communities advocate for, fund and launch internet infrastructure projects. The Extension-led program will also provide funding support for local digital equity efforts by counties and tribes.

“Extension’s long engagement in digital equity and broadband work, coupled with our presence in all Washington counties and expertise in grass-roots processes, help us support local efforts to expand not just access to high-speed internet, but adoption of broadband technologies and applications that improve communities’ quality of life,” said Mike Gaffney, director of WSU Extension’s Community and Economic Development Program Unit.

Support for teams and digital equity

With a presence in every county in Washington, as well as offices serving the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and the Kalispel Tribe, Extension has been helping counties and tribes form BATS over the past six years. Many areas have established teams, while others are still in the early stages of formation. Through this new partnership, an Extension-supported working group will help teams assess their strengths and opportunities, develop plans and access funding.

In 2022, the Washington State Legislature provided the state broadband office with $3 million to support digital equity planning for the state’s 39 counties and 29 federally recognized tribal nations. WSBO will work with Extension to assist local organizations in making plans that meet needs and promote digital equity: ensuring people and communities have the digital capacity needed for full participation in democracy, society and the economy.

Counties and tribes will be able to take part in trainings, identify needs and gaps and propose programs to promote and support digital equity; qualifying plans will position communities to draw on funding support.

“From online education, telehealth, and banking to shopping, entertainment, and other essentials of everyday life, the pandemic taught us how necessary equitable broadband access is for every household and business in Washington,” said Mark Vasconi, WSBO Director. “This work is another important step on the way to our goal of universal broadband access.”

As the Washington State Broadband Office moves forward with planning how federal funding can be best targeted to expand broadband services, the agency sees the partnership with WSU Extension as an important step in developing grassroots Broadband Action Teams across the state.

“This means communities and tribal nations can determine the projects that further the goal of providing equitable broadband service to all households and businesses in Washington,” Vasconi said. “Participation of citizens, user groups, and providers will be central in determining how funding will best be used.”

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