As the novel coronavirus has spread across the United States, so too have efforts to bring Internet access to digitally disconnected households during a time of nationwide social distancing. Washington and Massachusetts are on different coasts, but both states are working with publicly owned broadband networks to deploy emergency Wi-Fi hotspots in underserved communities in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In Washington, a state-led initiative is deploying hundreds of new Wi-Fi access points with the help of community networks, including Northwest Open Access Network (NoaNet), a statewide middle-mile network, and several Public Utility Districts (PUDs). And on the other side of the country, Massachusetts has enlisted the help of municipal network Whip City Fiber to establish Wi-Fi hotspots in communities with poor connectivity.
The drive-up public hotspots will allow residents of both states to complete online school assignments, apply for unemployment insurance, and connect with healthcare providers, among other essential tasks.
“We’ve all been in a position where we understand to connect to the world during this really challenging time, Wi-Fi is essential,” said Dr. Lisa Brown, Director of the Washington Department of Commerce, during a livestreamed launch of the state Wi-Fi initiative.
Washington Partners with PUDs for Wi-Fi
The initiative in Washington is being led by the Washington State Broadband Office and the Department of Commerce in partnership with NoaNet, regional PUDs, the Washington Independent Telecommunications Association, Washington Technology Solutions, Washington State University, and others. In addition to the existing Wi-Fi hotspots that schools and libraries have made accessible from their parking lots, the partners plan to set up more than 300 new access points in underserved areas, using state funding and philanthropic donations. A map of all public Wi-Fi locations is available online.
To deploy these new hotspots, the state is working with NoaNet, PUDs, and other Internet access providers. Many PUDs in the state have already invested in fiber optic broadband networks, building off NoaNet’s network to connect their local residents and businesses. During this public health crisis, the state broadband office is urging them to use their networks to expand public Wi-Fi access. Participating districts include Chelan PUD, Franklin PUD, Grays Harbor PUD, Jefferson County PUD, Lewis County PUD, Mason PUD 3, and Okanogan PUD. Since state law prevents PUDs from offering services directly to residents, most districts are working with local companies to provide the Internet access.
Washington is targeting hotspot deployment in both urban and rural communities that have low access to broadband. Some sites have limited indoor usage available and all have social distancing protocols in place.
Massachusetts Taps Westfield for Hotspot Deployment
To connect unserved residents during the pandemic, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) and KCST are working with local providers to establish new Wi-Fi access points. They are also setting up hotspots at all other community institutions served by the state-owned middle mile network, MassBroadband 123, which KCST operates.
Westfield Gas and Electric, which operates the Whip City Fiber municipal broadband network, is one of the participating providers. In partnership with the state agency, it has deployed Wi-Fi hotpots in 13 communities. See the full list of hotspot deployments.
The city started offering fiber Internet access to its residents in 2015. Since then, Westfield has been working to improve connectivity in Western Massachusetts by helping other communities establish their own fiber networks. A number of the towns that Westfield G&E set up Wi-Fi hotspots in are also working with the utility to offer Internet access to their residents and businesses, including in Blandford, New Salem, and Windsor.
MBI and town representatives are asking people who use the new hotspots to abide by the social distancing guidelines issued by the state.
Temporary Solutions to a Permanent Need
Officials in both Washington and Massachusetts acknowledge that the new Wi-Fi hotspots are emergency efforts to provide connectivity during the pandemic and that more needs to be done to close the digital divide.
Commerce Director Brown explained during the Washington launch event:
This is one step in a major process of making sure that we have digital equity in Washington State, so that all of our seniors can order prescriptions and do their telehealth online and all of our students can have that educational access.
In Massachusetts, MBI has been distributing funding to increase broadband access in unserved towns through its last mile programs, and municipal broadband networks have been growing steadily.
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of these state efforts to connect all of their residents to reliable, affordable, high-speed Internet access. While the Wi-Fi hotspots are only a temporary bandaid, they’re a step in the right direction.