June 24, 2024

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Opinion: COVID’s unexpected benefit: better broadband | Opinion

We can’t find much of anything good to say about the 22-month siege we’ve all endured under COVID.

But fair is fair. And for all the people who accuse us of not presenting both sides on our opinion page, we’ll grudgingly give this pandemic one grain of credit:

We’ve all seen the problem firsthand. Few of us had even heard of Zoom two years ago, but now most of us grit our teeth and scowl at the mere mention of the name.

Since the pandemic hit, many of us have struggled to work remotely from our dining rooms or tried to help our kids keep up with schoolwork and somehow still stay connected to any sort of social life.

But in many Valley homes, internet access is downright lousy. We’re simply not as wired as many other communities.

“There are a lot of people that we’ve seen leave our college because they simply cannot deal with the frustration of trying to access all of the education materials that we’re providing online,” Yakima Valley College’s vice president for instruction, Jennifer Ernst, told the Yakima Herald-Republic the other day.

And seniors trying to connect with their doctors via the internet? Don’t even get us started.

With so much of our lives now being conducted online, it’s become obvious to anyone who didn’t realize it before: Our Valley has lagged behind most of the rest of the country for years when it comes to internet access and speed.

Look at Wi-Fi service on Yakama Nation lands, for example. Just 28% of the reservation even has access — and nearly everyone else there puts up with exasperatingly slow speeds. It’s not a whole lot better in other far reaches of the county, either.

You can’t blame internet providers. Setting up service of any sort — let alone high-speed access — is no cakewalk. It’s expensive, complicated and it involves miles of red tape.

Still, lack of viable internet access hampers education and puts businesses at a competitive disadvantage — not counting local glass companies that might have seen a recent uptick in projects involving frustrated computer users hurling laptops or phones through windows.

But a new coalition of public officials from local health, education and government entities is attacking the problem head-on. The group got together last week for a “connectivity summit” organized by the Yakima Valley Broadband Action Team.

The group’s goal is to identify the most pressing concerns about the lack of high-speed internet access, and then figure out ways to get the money they’ll need to help solve the problems.

They’re focusing on grants and going after a share of the $100 million set aside for broadband development in Washington state in the recently passed federal infrastructure bill.

The federal money, included in a bill that President Joe Biden has already signed, will be distributed to communities that can demonstrate a need for better broadband and can show that they have specific plans for how to use the funds.

The broadband coalition’s work is a giant step in meeting those requirements.

Meantime, a dozen local public school districts are already in line for $88 million worth of urgently needed broadband funding through the federal American Rescue Plan — including more than $1.3 million for the Yakima School District alone, nearly $588,000 for Wapato, and about $472,000 for Mabton.

It all adds up to a lot of potential help for local students, workers and patients.

After years of waiting (and aggravating hours of watching for our home computers to connect), these are truly encouraging steps.

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