Broadband upgrade is back on track

Cars pass by a large spool of cable sitting along Snake River Road on Thursday, about 5 miles south of Asotin.

Internet connections are so slow in some Clarkston neighborhoods that families routinely drive their children to the Asotin County Library parking lot so they can do their homework on a network where the speeds are faster.

To the west, in Garfield County, a number of people in rural areas don’t have decent cell service.

Both challenges are expected to be eased with the infusion of millions in federal dollars earmarked for southeastern Washington.

The Port of Clarkston anticipates receiving $3.72 million, and the Port of Garfield is in line for $3.82 million.

The awards, which are dependent on the receipt of the federal funds, are part of the 2021 Washington State Legislature’s infrastructure investment of the federal Coronavirus Capital Project Fund, according to a news release from the Washington State Public Works Board.

A total of 15 projects throughout Washington were selected by the board from 29 applicants.

Internet access is a necessity in today’s society that spurs economic growth, gives students access to education and facilitates telemedicine, said public works board chairwoman Kathryn Gardow, in a prepared statement.

“The federal and state governments are making significant broadband investments to move Washingtonians toward a more connected state and nation,” she said. “With these 15 projects, we continue to close the digital divide and bring broadband to unserved communities throughout the state.”

Two of the projects selected were submitted by the Port of Clarkston. One is in the neighborhood surrounding Grantham Elementary School and will cover about one third of the city of Clarkston, said Clarkston Port Manager Wanda Keefer.

The other is in an adjacent neighborhood around Highland Elementary School. It is mostly located between Poplar, Libby, 13th and 16th streets, but also includes some adjacent blocks to the west of 16th Street.

Both will bring fiber optic lines to all of the homes and businesses in the project areas, increasing download and upload speeds, she said.

The neighborhoods are priorities because of the poor quality of existing telecommunications infrastructure and the low income levels of their residents, Keefer said.

About 80 percent of Grantham Elementary School students qualify for free or reduced lunch, while close to 70 percent of the students at Highland Elementary School meet the criteria for those programs, she said.

“The need was so great,” Keefer said. “It was overwhelming compared with other parts of Asotin County.”

The lines will join an existing Port of Clarkston network where capacity is leased to private companies that sell services such as internet to families and businesses, she said.

The Asotin County Library is going to provide technical assistance to help customers find the most affordable prices and purchase services that fill their needs, Keefer said.

“This is a comprehensive approach,” she said.

In Garfield County, upgrades will cover more than one fourth of the county in its northeast section, said Port of Garfield County Manager Diana Ruchert.

That area was chosen because it has the highest number of residents in Garfield County outside of Pomeroy and it is where Dye Seed, a private employer is located, she said.

Similar to the Port of Clarkston’s approach, the Port of Garfield County will lease capacity in the new infrastructure to telecommunications companies that will sell services to customers, she said.

“We did score well on it,” Ruchert said. “We do have a need. I’m really excited.”

Williams may be contacted at ewilliam@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2261.