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    Whatcom County combats unreliable internet during COVID-19

    Pandemic highlights the lack of quality internet access many Washingtonians face

    Wifi symbol in front of a stack of WWU textbooks. Xfinity and public libraries have recently provided WWU students with free internet access during the stay-at-home order. // Illustration by Emma Toscani
    Wifi symbol in front of a stack of WWU textbooks. Xfinity and public libraries have recently provided WWU students with free internet access during the stay-at-home order. // Illustration by Emma Toscani

    By Kaleigh Carroll

    Amidst the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, many Washington residents without reliable in-home Wi-Fi are turning to public sources for the internet to stay connected while home.

    When people can’t receive or afford reliable internet at their homes, they turn to free sources, which are usually found at work, school or libraries. Gov. Jay Inslee’s order temporarily closes many of these institutions for in-person services until phase 3, which has left some people without regular internet access.

    In Washington state, 71% of residents have access to broadband internet according to an ongoing survey from the Washington Statewide Broadband Office.

    “The biggest concern is not that people don’t have access, it’s the quality of that access,” said Russ Elliott, the director of the Washington Statewide Broadband Office.

    Experts like Roberto Gallardo, the assistant director for the Center for Regional Development at Purdue University, refer to this problem as digital exclusion or the digital divide.

    “We strive for digital inclusion, which is when everyone has the skills, tools, devices and connectivity to thrive in the digital age. Right now, we’re realizing how far away some communities are from that goal,” Gallardo said.

    He emphasized that in our digital age, internet access is becoming a necessity and a major factor in people’s quality of life.

    “If you don’t have reliable internet, your kids can’t do their homework, you can’t do telehealth, you can’t shop for necessities online and you can’t work from home,” Gallardo said.

    “COVID[-19] has brought a lot more focus to our initiatives, but it’s important to note that all these problems existed beforehand. We’re just seeing a brighter light being shown on them now,” Elliott said.

    Oralie Chapman, a Ferndale resident who works from home, said her family has increased their reliance on their internet connection since the pandemic began.

    “We’re now streaming videos for schoolwork, and my husband is working partly from home. My children are also on their iPads more during the day to connect with friends than they were before COVID-19,” Chapman said.

    Locally, the digital divide is being combatted with newly accessible hotspots provided by Xfinity, public internet on Western’s campus and continued internet access at public libraries.

    Xfinity announced that all of its out-of-home Wi-Fi hotspots will be made free and accessible to the public. A map of all the hotspots can be found on their website and no set date has been announced on when this policy will end.

    The Washington Statewide Broadband Office has also compiled a map of all the public Wi-Fi hotspots within the state.

    Western’s guest wireless Wi-Fi network is also available to the public, said Chuck Lanham, the vice provost for Information Technology.

    Although all the Whatcom County and Bellingham library system branches are closed to patrons, each branch is continuing to provide free Wi-Fi access in their parking lots.

    “One of our primary missions is connecting people to information and ideas, both of which are abundantly available on the internet. But if you don’t have access to that resource then you are significantly disadvantaged,” said Christine Perkins, the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System.

    Anyone can access the free Wi-Fi, regardless of if they have a library card or not, and there are no time limits imposed. The library only asks that people maintain social distancing guidelines while accessing the Wi-Fi.

    The Whatcom County Library System is also working to enhance the internet signal strength at its Ferndale, Everson and Deming branches as well as increasing the bandwidth within their bookmobile service.

    New routers and other internet equipment are also set to be installed at the future Birch Bay library site, but there is no set date on when that will be available to the public. Updates on the project will be posted by the Whatcom County Library System, Perkins said.

    While COVID-19 and the subsequent stay-at-home orders have shed light on the digital divide, Elliott worries the awareness may fade once we return to normal.

    “Hopefully, we don’t sweep this issue under the rug once COVID[-19] has faded. I want to see the same energy around this issue continue long-after restrictions are lifted,” Elliott said.

    He’s hoping to see a change in how much funding is allocated to offices like his and how that funding gets distributed to communities in the state.

    Elliott encouraged Washington residents who want to help address this issue to participate in the survey the broadband office is currently conducting to determine internet speeds statewide.

    “That data will allow our office to make intelligent decisions about where to allocate the anticipated funding so we can alleviate gaps in coverage and become better advocates for areas of need,” Elliott said.

    Although Elliott acknowledged that there are barriers the state needs to tackle to overcome the digital divide, he remains motivated for the future.

    “We know it’s going to be a significant challenge to solve this problem, so let’s start focusing on the solutions,” Elliott said.

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