By Mike Sato
— The COVID-19 shutdown of businesses and schools revealed a stark digital divide as many local businesses and households faced working, teaching and learning at home whether equipped and ready, or not.
Before the pandemic, missing or inconsistent internet service and even the lack of basic computer hardware and software were nuisances but had possible work-around solutions. When things shut down, the nuisance became a crippling disability for many.
The status quo had been a long-standing problem in Whatcom County. The Port of Bellingham, in its role as the county’s economic development coordinator, last year completed a broadband needs assessment and found the lack of high-speed, reliable internet connection to be an economic, health and safety disadvantage to first-responders, businesses, teachers and students.
Early construction of part of that system is underway. But even with that progress, COVID-19 revealed and exacerbated the cultural and technological divides around connectivity in Whatcom County.
Now, with COVID-19 relief money, some of the county’s internet access and reliability problems may be relieved, at least for students and families.
The broadband project
Over a year ago, following the needs assessment, the Port of Bellingham put together an ambitious plan to construct a 113-mile, countywide, broadband fiber network for Whatcom County.
The $6.8 million project specified three segments: fiber cable would connect Bellingham, Cedarville, Limestone Junction and Glacier; cable would connect Nugent’s Corner and Nooksack then extend west and north to the border; and fiber cable would be buried along Highway 9 to connect to Skagit County.
Additional networks would extend from the trunk lines and be made available for leasing by internet service providers, who could provide high-speed service to county residents, businesses and first responders.
The Port, in its role as the county’s economic development agency, received in May 2019 a $584,391 loan and a $584,390 grant from the state’s Community Economic Redevelopment Board, and a $750,000 grant from the county’s Economic Development Investment Board for the county broadband project.
And the hunt for funding continues: This month the state’s Department of Commerce announced making $18 million available in loans and grants for broadband infrastructure projects at a time when workers and students are increasingly reliant on home internet. The Port’s economic development director Don Goldberg confirmed that the broadband project is after that funding as well.
Meeting the crisis
At the June 2 meeting, Goldberg told the commissioners of the opportunity to address short-term connectivity issues with a portion of the county’s $16 million Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) funds. He advised that $1.9 million from the business assistance category could be spent for improved service. There is, however, an urgency to the opportunity since the CARES funds need to be spent by October 31, Goldberg noted.
Gina Stark, the Port’s economic development project manager, described discussions in ongoing regular meetings on the Port’s broadband project among county, city, library, school, Public Utility District and Port technical staffs, including examination of how to identify short-term solutions for areas with no service or poor service. While not part of the Port’s broadband project, CARES funding could pay to create personal “hot spots” in rural areas using cell phone connections to access the internet, or to pay for data use.
“We’ve brought great minds together in the same room for this discussion,” said Stark.
Whatcom County Deputy Executive Tyler Schroeder last week clarified and updated status of the county’s connectivity project, noting that the County “is focused on developing a plan to help the school districts provide reliable distance learning equipment and connectivity support.”
He said that $500,000 of the CARES Act funding has been set aside to assist in distance learning. That includes hardware purchases and internet connections for students who currently do not have those resources.
Meanwhile, he said, the Port of Bellingham is applying for a $1 million U.S. Department of Agriculture Distance Learning Grant to support teachers and the resources needed for distance learning. The grant will be matched by $50,000 each from the Port, Whatcom County and the Whatcom County Public Utility District, for a total of $150,000. The grant application will be submitted as a consortium and in partnership with county school districts.
Schroeder said that this program is in the early stages and the county council still needs to confirm their commitment to the project.
“I’m not sure what the $1.9 million is Don [Goldberg] referred to,” said Schroeder, “but if this is successful, we will get close to $1.5 million to provide these resources.”
‘Let’s not get bogged down in details’
At the June 2 Port meeting, commissioners received Goldberg and Stark’s briefing with caution.
Commissioner Ken Bell expressed discomfort with staff getting too far ahead of elected officials. “The goal is not to spend the money but to meet the needs out there,” he cautioned. “We are elected to be the stewards.”
“The urgency to spend this money is foolish,” he said. “We should corral the money, bundle it through the Port because broadband goes through the Port.”
Despite it being the county’s decision on how the CARES funding is spent, Commissioner Bobby Briscoe wanted to make sure the broadband project did not slip out of the Port’s bailiwick. “It’s not our money but it’s our people,” he said. “I don’t want to see it taken away and messed up like it gets messed up.”
“We do broadband,” assured Goldberg.
“We are not acquiescing any authority,” said Stark. “Nothing is delegated.”
Port Executive Director Ron Fix assured the commissioners that staff would report back and keep them apprised.
“This is a very time-sensitive issue,” said commission chair Michael Shepard. “Let’s not get bogged down.”
Mike Sato compiles environmental news items for Salish Sea News and Weather and periodically blogs for Salish Sea Communications. He is the author of The Price of Taming a River: The Decline of Puget Sound’s Duwamish/Green Waterway. He resides in Bellingham and on Lopez Island.