Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Broadband Action Team tackles the digital divide

Technology

Posted

OKANOGAN – The Okanogan County and Colville Confederated Tribes Broadband Action Team (BAT for short) hosted the first Zoom meeting of the North Central Washington Broadband Coalition since the BAT was formed in 2019 to bridge the county’s digital divide.

The NCW Coalition conference was held immediately following the regular monthly BAT Zoom meeting chaired by Economic Alliance Executive Director Roni Holder-Diefenbach last Thursday, Sept. 28. Holder-Diefenbach began with some good news on two fronts, Ziply Fiber and the Board of Okanogan County Commissioners (BOCC).

Ziply has completed its internet installation contract for the City of Brewster and will be celebrating with a groundbreaking ceremony at 12 noon on Thursday, Oct. 5, at city hall, 105 Third Street.

Last month Holder-Diefenbach met with the BOCC to set aside $500,000 in America Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) funds for county broadband projects. Since that meeting the BOCC added more funding and wants to dedicate those dollars to both the Okanogan PUD and Okanogan County Electric Cooperative (OCEC) as the open access network providers for their customers. OCEC is adding its ARPA share to a $12.9 million Washington State Broadband Office (WSBO) grant it recently received to cover the upper Methow Valley.

As of this writing the PUD is evaluating target areas where it can best apply its funding. In August the PUD was awarded a $30 million USDA grant to bring fiber optic service to 721 homes in northeastern Washington. It has some environmental hoops to jump through but if approved, installation could begin in 12 to 18 months with a five-year completion window.

Bridging the digital divide

The NCW Digital Access and Equity Coalition (NCWDAEC) publicly launched at last Thursday’s post-BAT zoom call. Summer Hess, the digital equity project manager for the NCW Tech Alliance moderated the meeting. Hess explained that the new coalition hopes to follow the lead of the BAT but on a broader basis to address digital access and equity across Chelan, Douglas, Grant, and Okanogan counties, and the Confederated Tribes. 

“We’ve noticed that we have some counties across the region that have broadband action teams and some counties do not,” said Hess. “We’re thinking about a way to bring the disparate pieces together and find ways to bring power and opportunity so that we are more viable for statewide grants.”

The coalition got its start when the state Department of Commerce awarded a $1 million digital navigator grant to the Community Health Network of Washington (CHNW) to launch the Digital Equity Initiative. The initiative, in turn, established the NCW coalition in partnership with the North Central Accountable Community of Health and the NCW Tech Alliance.

“The idea behind the NCWDEAC is to complement the work of the broadband action team for what’s being done on a county level,” said Hess, “and wherever necessary bring a regional approach to securing funding opportunities.”

Hess said the NCW Coalition goals include:

      • Enhance digital access for the underserved population.

      • Increase visibility for digital equity across the region.

      • Knowledge sharing and collaboration.

      • Increase funding.

Hess said the NCW team will continue to hold quarterly meetings, prepare for 2024 grant opportunities, connect individuals to resources including navigators, and educate local governments and organizations on digital equity best practices and metrics.

Mike Maltais: 360-333-8483, maltais@ward.media


 

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