Residents in rural areas will be able to access free broadband internet through a Washington State Department of Commerce initiative to bring more than 300 new drive-in Wi-Fi hotspots in the state.
The public-private partnership formed to install the hotspots is in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which highlighted the importance of internet access for distance learning, remote work, telemedicine and essential services, according to the department.
"Depending on where you live, some seniors can't refill prescriptions, furloughed workers can't apply for unemployment benefits, small businesses can't access financial assistance and students can't do their homework," state Commerce Director Lisa Brown said in a statement. "It is absolutely essential to make broadband universally available to strengthen communities throughout the state."
More than 140 of the new drive-in hotspots are operational, in addition to 301 existing Washington State Library hotspots.
Libraries in the state have been integral to the drive-in hotspot project by turning Wi-Fi capacity toward their parking lots to ensure patrons can remain connected to digital resources, according to the department.
The federal Information Technology Disaster Resource Center is completing installation of the remaining hotspots that will bring the total to more than 600 free Wi-Fi access points in the state.
Some of the Wi-Fi hotspots will also offer indoor public access during business hours. Residents using the hotspots must practice social distancing precautions that include staying in their vehicles or 6 feet away from other users.
Each hotspot has its own security protocol, and some will be equipped with Children's Internet Protection Act filters, according to the department.
Microsoft and the Avista Foundation are providing funding for the Wi-Fi project, and the ITDRC contributed equipment. The state approved $250,000 in disaster response funding to support deployment of the drive-in hotspots.
The idea for drive-in Wi-Fi access was spurred by Andre-Denis Wright, dean of WSU's College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences, which includes the WSU Extension program, according to the department. WSU Extension sites are hosting community public access hotspots in every county in the state.
Other partners in the state's drive-in Wi-Fi initiative are the Washington Public Utility Districts Association, Northwest Open Access Network, Washington Independent Telecommunications Association, Washington Technology Solutions and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Brown said the initiative is a stop-gap emergency measure for families during the public health crisis; the ultimate goal is to bring broadband connectivity to every household in the state.
A map of Wi-Fi locations can be found at driveinwifi.wa.gov. The map will be updated as more sites become available.