As work and school shift online indefinitely, study finds 20% of King County lacks reliable internet

Aerial view of Seattle, Lake Washington, and Bellevue. (Flickr Photo / Joe Wolf)

At a time when internet access has never been more critical, 20% of households are undeserved in King County, a region that encompasses Seattle, Bellevue, Kent, and other communities in Washington state, stretching east to Snoqualmie Pass.

A newly released King County study, completed earlier this year, sheds light on broadband access as workers, parents, and teachers plan for a fall that will rely heavily on home internet due to the pandemic. The report finds that 80% of King County residents have adequate internet service, and the remaining 20% are “underserved,” defined as a community without broadband service or with internet that is too underutilized, expensive, or slow to adequately serve residents.

King County Chief Information Officer Tanya Hannah.

“Digital equity is a very big deal for urban and rural communities, in particular, and the fact of the matter is, with broadband, tech is embedded in our society,” said Tanya Hannah, the King County chief information officer. “To participate in the digital economy you need access, you need skills, and that’s highly important.”

King County estimates it would cost $120 million to install fiber to homes without reliable internet service. Operating costs would be relatively low once the infrastructure is built. It would cost cable companies approximately $3.4 million to expand into 750 underserved locations in the county, according to the report. Fixed wireless infrastructure “would have a lower capital cost than fiber, but extremely high ongoing operating costs.”

For those reasons, the report’s authors believe fiber would be the best investment over time. King County recommends a public-private partnership to expand broadband to underserved areas.

“Even in the most affluent rural and semi-rural areas, the economics simply do not exist for broadband deployment based solely on private sector investment,” the study says.

Low-income communities are the most likely to lack adequate internet access in King County, particularly in South Seattle and surrounding communities. The district encompassing the southeastern portion of King County includes much of the underserved areas. Residents of the county can look up their district for detailed information on internet service and their options.

Though there are low-income internet programs in the region, they aren’t well utilized or known in the communities that need them most. About 47% of residents surveyed who would qualify for the programs were unaware of them. In households with people of color and Native Americans, 49% were unaware of low-income programs they could use.

The report combines an assessment of the county’s broadband infrastructure with community surveys to provide a picture of what internet access looks like in the area. More than 3,868 surveys were conducted over the summer of 2019.

The King County Council has earmarked $1.5 million to improve digital equity, through grants for devices, internet infrastructure, and technical training. K-12 schools will receive $1 million and $500,000 will go to seniors, immigrants, low-income families, and people who are newly unemployed.

King County is assessing recommendations from the study and plans to unveil a more detailed program to address digital equity by the end of 2020. In Seattle, the City Council passed a resolution Tuesday asking the city’s IT department to develop a plan to expand digital equity by Sept. 2016.

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