Access to the internet, as most anyone can tell you, is as much a routine part of our lives as flipping on a light switch, or turning on a water faucet.
Like power and water, the internet has become a basic utility, but imagine if, depending on whether you live in Centralia or Onalaska, the water coming out of your kitchen faucet could either be a trickle or flow like Niagara Falls.
In the internet-world, that’s the digital divide, and for the past decade or more, Lewis County government agencies and representatives to state government have bemoaned the slow expansion of high-speed internet to rural communities. They’ve struggled to find a way to expand infrastructure themselves, or incentivize service providers to do it.
It’s been a slow simmering problem, but COVID-19 brought it to a boil. All of a sudden, pandemic-related school and business closures sent workers home. Overnight, demand for home-based high-speed internet went through the roof.
Many parents, teachers and school districts spent the summer worrying about what September would bring. Lewis County diverted $300,000 of relief funds to get internet hookups for rural students and school districts handed out hotspots.
You might expect a rural area to have fewer options for internet, but some homes with little or no access to internet aren’t halfway up Mount Rainier — they might be just a few miles off Interstate 5.
In our three-part series, beginning on the front page of this edition, we’ll explore the digital divide in detail.
We start by defining the problem — what is the divide? What kind of internet service can you get in Lewis County and where?
We also talked with families and individuals dealing with the issue firsthand, shuttling their children to internet hotspots during the day, then picking them up in the afternoon, or shelling out hundreds of dollars a month for smartphone-based hotspots.
In subsequent editions, we’ll look at the success ToledoTel has had bringing high-speed broadband internet to a rural community, while in other cities, like Winlock, getting good internet can depend, literally, on what side of the railroad tracks you’re on.
Finally we’ll look at the solutions agencies and community groups are finding to address both the short term emergency of getting families connected to schooling and long term strategies for bridging this digital divide.
If you’d like to share your own story with us, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.