Without reliable internet service, people and businesses are simply disconnected from today’s world.
I recently traveled to the far western reaches of our state to celebrate an event that will instantly change lives for an isolated community.
It will be remembered as the day fiber-optic cable finally reached people living in the rural coastal town of Neah Bay. For the first time, these rural Washingtonians, including the Makah Tribe, will have access to reliable broadband internet service — something most of us take for granted.
The event didn’t generate many headlines beyond the Olympic Peninsula, but access to high-speed internet is an absolute game changer for far-flung towns in our state.
And too many are still waiting. More than 200,000 people in Washington still lack access to broadband, and more than 400,000 have access to only one provider and no choice. A staggering 68 percent of Americans on tribal lands are still cut off from broadband access.
After my military service, when I came home to Tulalip in the early 1980s to help my community create what is now the Quil Ceda Village, one of our first priorities was installing state-of-the-art telecommunications.
We realized that before any major construction occurred, the team had to map out our ability to connect electronically to the outside world. Today, the casino, hotel and retail shops would not be able to run without high-speed internet service.
We know without a doubt that those underground lines of fiber are just as important as bricks and mortar. Without reliable internet service, people and businesses are simply disconnected from today’s world.
That’s why it’s so frustrating that we walked away from another legislative session in Olympia without progress at the state level for our rural communities that are still waiting for a way to connect. DSL, cable, fiber optic, wireless or satellite service remains out of reach for too many because it’s either not available or not affordable.
In fact, the priority of big telecom companies is to focus on speeding up existing internet service in big cities.
I get it — businesses like to see a profit, and these companies don’t see big dollars in rural Washington. This means someone in Seattle will soon be able to enjoy lightning-fast 5G service while a family in Adams County struggles using dial-up.
So how can we move forward and help bridge the rural/urban cyber divide?
The easy answer is better cooperation between public utilities and private companies.
We know many of our public utilities districts (PUDs) are eager to help connect their customers to the internet but lack the resources. Companies like Century Link, Verizon and Comcast have repeatedly made commitments to serve communities disadvantaged by the lack of broadband infrastructure.
I introduced legislation last session to expand the authority of PUDs and ports that want to invest in broadband, and I support other bills that would provide an improved pathway for public-private partnerships. Unfortunately, Senate Republicans in Olympia refused to hold a public hearing on the bill.
Broadband finally reached Neah Bay and the Makah Tribe, thanks largely to federal support and persistence from U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington. State leaders should follow suit by encouraging telecom giants to serve those with no access before expanding their footprints inside dense urban areas.
Otherwise, without fiber-optic cables, rural reservations and communities will remain cut off from the education and economic opportunity everyone else enjoys.