Monica Babine, who worked more than 20 years to connect citizens and policymakers and make rural broadband a reality, retires today.
Throughout her career, Babine, senior associate and leader of WSU’s Program for Digital Initiatives, spent years demonstrating the value of broadband internet and importance of digital access for all communities in Washington. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Overnight, people around the world were suddenly homebound, trying to navigate remote work, distance learning, and services online,” said Babine. “Hands down, COVID-19 was the biggest challenge, but also the greatest opportunity for my work at WSU.”
Babine and colleagues in WSU Extension worked with the Washington State Broadband Office, the Washington State Library, and local Broadband Action Teams to find dozens of partners across the state and expand what came to be known as the Washington State Drive-In Wi-Fi Hotspot Initiative. They provided more than 600 free, public access internet locations across the state.
The partnership was recognized with a Digital Opportunity Equity Recognition award from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the fall of 2020. The recognition acknowledges efforts to bring reliable, affordable broadband to communities.
“We heard from people who were able to attend a telehealth appointment, apply for a job, or work on homework thanks to the hotspots,” Babine said. “That has been the most rewarding part..”
“Monica’s passion, personality, and commitment to the land grant mission was evident, whether she was talking to a Congressional staffer or an FCC Commissioner,” said Glynda Becker-Fenter, Assistant Vice President for Federal Engagement and Executive Director of . “She taught us all the value of connectivity, and WSU was lucky to have her.”
Raised by a single mother in the suburbs of Spokane, Babine said her mother was her hero.
“From her I learned the importance of hard work, and the value of sticking together,” she said.
The land grant mission and interest in group initiatives—how a few people working together can make a big difference—was what drew Babine to WSU.
While working at a telecom company in the 1980s and early ‘90s, Babine led the company’s participation in the nation’s first telework demonstration project. The project was guided by a unit that evolved into the WSU Program for Digital Initiatives—a program she led until her retirement.
Babine used skills developed from years in the telecom industry and her degree in social work to help expand digital technology access across Washington. “Monica has been a champion for broadband infrastructure and equity efforts here in Washington for many years,” said Russ Elliott, director of the Washington State Broadband Office. “Our state continues to lead the country when it comes to broadband, due to her commitment to see every citizen has access to affordable Internet services.”
Babine’s career helped shape WSU’s Rural Pathways to Prosperity program, an award-winning conference held virtually to help businesses and community leaders in rural areas work with resource providers online, rather than accruing the expense of traveling to a state or national conference.
In May, Babine was awarded the 2021 Benton Foundation Digital Equity Champion Award for her expansive work in digital equity.
Last fall in North Central Washington, Babine, colleagues in the WSU Division of Governmental Studies & Services, and external partners piloted a remote worker certification program to help rural residents gain digital skills for the post-pandemic era. The online course’s success led to a statewide launch in 2021.
“In many ways, I feel like my work at WSU has come full circle,” she said.
Babine said she considers herself a passionate public servant, thankful for the support of her family and colleagues over the years.
“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate WSU,” she said.
While the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic have caused federal and state dollars to flow to broadband and telework projects like Babine’s, she is ready for the next generation to lead.
“What better time to retire than when we have all these new, young, enthusiastic people coming in with new ideas?” she said.
“If the COVID-19 pandemic has a silver lining, it has revealed the need for our work on broadband access, and made it stronger through our partnerships with public, private, and non-profit sector,” Babine added. “This is the time for us to dive deeper, work harder, and be a model for others.”