Highlighting rural broadband access gap, WSU-supported Broadband Action Team draws interest from FCC chairman

COLVILLE, Wash.—People nationwide depend on the Internet to go to work or school, maintain their health, and take care of loved ones. For residents of rural, Tribal, and other underserved areas, however, smooth, speedy access to the Internet isn’t always a given.

Portrait of Ajit Pai with US Flag, official seal on wall
Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, discussed potential solutions to rural broadband access challenges June 11 with an Extension-led Broadband Action Team (Photo courtesy FCC).

In the northeast corner of Washington state, Washington State University Extension is leading a collaborative effort to reveal gaps in broadband availability in underserved areas, in hopes of providing more access, affordability, and use. Efforts by the Stevens County-Spokane Tribe Broadband Action Team (BAT) are now drawing the interest of Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai.

On Thursday, June 11, Pai joined 5th District U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers in a virtual meeting with local Broadband Action Team members. Team leader and WSU Stevens County Extension Director Debra Hansen, Stevens County Commissioner Wes McCart, Colville School District Superintendent Pete Lewis, other BAT members, and Washington State Broadband Office Director Russ Elliott shared grassroots efforts to survey broadband access in their largely rural communities.

“High-speed Internet is a lifeline for residents in rural communities, especially in the era of COVID-19,” Hansen said. “But rural areas are often lacking in connectivity, for a variety of reasons—dispersed populations, rugged terrain, harsh weather, and poverty and unemployment.”

One of the challenges to expanding service is that national maps showing broadband coverage may be based on imprecise, out-of-date, or unverified data. To help, the Broadband Action Team, supported by the state broadband office, launched a speed test this spring of the entire county, in partnership with a private company, GEO Partners, LLC.

A Washington state map showing dots across Stevens County, most of them red.
A 2020 speed test commissioned by the Broadband Access Team, in partnership with Washington State Broadband Office, revealed that most users in Stevens County had lower-than-standard speeds.

While the test is still underway, early results from more than 1,400 locations across the county showed that about 70 percent of responders had download speeds below 25 Mbps per second, the minimum number to be considered broadband. Sixteen percent had no service, and only 13 percent had speeds above 25 Mbps.

“On the federal broadband map, we’re considered 100 percent served,” McCart said. “In reality, we’re nowhere near covered, at speeds that are mostly below broadband standards.”

“This is a challenge for a school district of 1,700 children, where 500 don’t have access to the Internet,” Lewis said. “You can see from our speeds that families are going to struggle.”

“Rural access and adoption issues are seen across the state,” said Monica Babine, senior associate leading WSU Extension’s Program for Digital Initiatives. “We are working collaboratively with the Washington State Broadband Office and Washington State Library, a division of the Secretary of State, to address them, by replicating and strengthening local Broadband Action Teams. Our Extension BAT model has been recognized nationally, and we are building on the success of the Stevens County-Spokane Tribe Broadband Action Team as we expand its use.”

In the Zoom meeting, Pai, Rodgers, and BAT members discussed local and federal solutions aimed at better data collection and strategic support for upgraded infrastructure in underserved areas.

“I was pleased to join with Washington State University Extension and Congresswoman McMorris Rodgers in this important discussion on expanding broadband in rural and Tribal areas in Washington,” Pai said.

“Closing the digital divide is my top priority as Chairman, and I’m excited about the FCC’s recent kickoff of a $16 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which will connect as many as six million American homes and businesses,” he added. “The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the needs of people looking for or doing a job, students who are learning remotely, doctors engaged in telehealth, farmers putting food on the table—all who rely on broadband.  We want to focus on underserved areas of the country, and make sure the people here get the high-speed, high quality broadband they deserve.”

Gathering of people with computers at a round library table.
Members of the Stevens County-Spokane Tribe meet in person prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. The team is working to bridge the broadband access gap in northeastern Washington, helping refine the regional broadband map.

“Everywhere I go in Eastern Washington, one of the top concerns I hear about is the need for rural broadband,” McMorris Rodgers said. “As we work at the federal level to prioritize broadband resources, I’m so thankful to leaders here in Eastern Washington, like the Broadband Action Team, who are working on the ground to connect our communities.

“I’m pleased that Chairman Pai was able to join today’s meeting to hear from local leaders directly about the great work they are doing,” she added. “Under his leadership, the FCC has been at the forefront of keeping Americans connected and expanding access to essential services like telehealth during this pandemic, and I look forward to continuing to work with local and federal leaders to get our community the resources we need to close the digital divide.”

Additional participants included Frank Metlow, Planning and Economic Development Director for the Spokane Tribe of Indians, 7th District State. Rep. Jacquelin Maycumber, and Sasi Pillay, WSU Vice President for Information Technology Services and Chief Technology Officer, among dozens of local, state, and university stakeholders.