$84M federal grant to improve rural Internet access in Washington state

by Kyung Song, Seattle Times

A third of all American households lack high-speed broadband Internet access, and nearly 5 percent rely on interminable dial-up modems to surf the Web.

An $84 million federal grant to Washington state is aiming to help bridge that digital divide. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke was in Seattle on Monday to announce the grant to expand broadband access to rural and other underserved areas in Washington. Locke was accompanied by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island.

The grant is among $800 million awarded to 24 states so far from $7.2 billion in stimulus money to hook up homes, libraries, health clinics and others to high-speed Internet networks. The grant was given to a consortium led by Tacoma-based Northwest Open Access Network (NoaNet), a nonprofit wholesale telecommunications company. Individual awards range from $9.8 million to Port of Whitman to $298,000 to Black Rock Cable to extend fiber-optics Internet access to parts of Bellingham.

The U.S. lags far behind many developed nations in high-speed Internet access. Such access also varies widely within the country, with broadband access highest among Asian Americans and lowest among Hispanics, according to a 2009 Commerce Department report.

Eighty-nine percent of households earning $150,000 or more had high-speed connections, compared with just 29 percent for those earning less than $15,000. Older Americans and rural residents also were less able to get, or afford, broadband service.

"We've got a long ways to go," said Nena Walton, a spokeswoman for NoaNet.

Rebecca Sears, a researcher of technology and social change at the University of Washington, said public investment in broadband services is necessary because commercial companies won't build networks in areas with sparse population or difficult terrain.

Sears said studies have shown that faster Internet speeds allow people to reap greater benefits, whether buying a car, job hunting or seeking medical advice.

"Having access to affordable high-speed access will increase their ability to make timely, informed decisions that are in their best interest," Sears said.

Part of the $84 million will go to creating WA-HealthNet, a statewide broadband health network. The enhanced bandwidth would allow rural and urban health facilities to exchange diagnostic imaging, lab results and other medical records.

article originally published at Seattle Times.

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