Rural broadband project aims to bridge 'digital divide'
Feb 26, 2013 (Walla Walla Union-Bulletin - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Last month, a patron accessing an e-book at the Dayton Memorial Library could expect to wait five hours for the download to be completed.
The reason for this wait time Until a recently completed overhaul of the region's infrastructure, outdated cable infrastructure across rural Eastern Washington meant small towns such as Dayton were receiving Internet through telephone lines, dramatically limiting the speed of data transfers. While cities like Walla Walla and Spokane have access to high-speed broadband Internet, many hospitals, libraries and government bodies in communities the size of Dayton survive on connections as slow as one megabit per second, a speed that makes downloading media and other large files a time-consuming process.
The disparity between rural and urban access to high-speed Internet has been referred to as the "digital divide," and in an age when more and more happens online, its effects can be serious. Hospitals are increasingly moving toward entirely digital patient records that can be transferred between care providers almost instantaneously. But slow Internet connections in rural areas mean that records are faxed instead, limiting the amount of information doctors have access to when patients are transferred from one facility to another.
Closing the divide requires large investments, and building infrastructure to serve communities of a few thousand people often doesn't make fiscal sense for companies hoping to make a profit. To help bridge the divide, $4.7 billion in the 2010 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, set aside funds for grants to expand broadband infrastructure across rural America.
Northwest Open Access Network, a Washington nonprofit broadband company, recently completed a project laying 950 miles of fiber optic cable in Eastern Washington, which was funded by two federal grants totalling $150 million. The project included laying cable from Pasco to Clarkston and Asotin, and was completed at the end of 2012.
Rob Kopp, who managed the NoaNet project, compared the expansion of broadband infrastructure to federally-funded rural electrification projects during the 1920s and 30s.
"These resource-based economies wouldn't have grown without rural electrification in the 20s," he said, adding that adequate Internet access was just as important a utility now as electricity was during the early 1900s.
"We felt it critical that broadband be accorded that same investment in rural America," he said.
Now that broadband infrastructure is in place, Dayton is beginning the process of connecting to the newly available network. The Washington Library worked with NoaNet to get grant funding, so libraries are first on the list to receive broadband access.
Dayton Memorial Library began receiving service earlier this year, with a 10 megabit per second connection, 10 times faster than the previous service. Library director Janet Lyon said she's seen far more people coming in to use laptops, and the time to download an e-book has dropped to only 15 minutes. It also takes less time to check patrons out.
"We can now help people more," said Lyon.
Hospitals are also on the list to be connected early. Dayton General Hospital started getting access this past Thursday, and director of operations Shane McGuire said his staff has seen a notable increase in the speed of their internal web applications, which allow them to order meals for patients and perform other tasks to optimize care.
The Garfield County Hospital District has yet to be connected, but CEO Andrew Craigie said the district should have access by the end of spring. The Garfield County Hospital is part of a network of other eastern Washington hospitals, including those in Grand Coulee, Newport and Davenport. Craigie said the faster connection will allow them to share information about best practices with each other, helping to optimize patient care.
Broadband will also enable the hospital to share patient information over a secure connection. Craigie said that healthcare is moving in the direction of banking, a system where you can travel anywhere in the world and have instant, secure digital access to your bank accounts. With faster networks, the hospital can host a database of patient information offsite and have instant access to it.
"This is really a very exciting prospect for us. We're really pleased that all the hard work is going to pay off," said Cragie.
Local governments are also looking to switch over to broadband. Garfield County engineer Grant Morgan said the county is looking for a vendor who can provide them secure service through the existing Inter-Governmental Network, which connects government bodies across the state directly to Olympia.
Morgan also noted that the NoaNet project included running dark fiber between county government offices, allowing for the creation of a faster network to communicate internally.
Broadband for residential and business use is still unavailable in areas that were just connected, but retailers in Dayton are hoping to be connected in the next few months.
David Klingenstein, who runs Touchet Valley Television, which provides cable and Internet to residential customers, said the new access would be much faster, allowing his business to be more competitive while providing options to customers.
"It'll open up a whole new world here in Dayton," he said.
Kopp said he was excited to see the results of NoaNet's work across rural eastern Washington.
"It's not about making money. It's really about economic and social development in rural America," he said.
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