By: Colleen Kerr
Vice President for External Affairs and Government Relations at Washington State University
At Washington State University, there is no doubt that a healthy, engaged, connected community facilitates a robust economy. By leveraging resources and technical expertise, the university contributes to the growth and prosperity of the communities it serves.
Through commitment to public service and collaboration, WSU brought forward innovative solutions to address a critical issue and meet the needs of communities across the state amid a global pandemic. These efforts established valuable resources, vitality, and economic opportunity to technically struggling communities, even more fragile in the COVID-19 era.
Following a statewide stay at home order, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the gulf between the Internet haves and have nots. In Washington, 10% of rural residents lack access to high-speed broadband. For students, limited access hinders their schooling, ability to contact advisors or access academic resources. School and library closures in mid-March 2020 eliminated access to free computers and the Internet that many relied on, bringing to light the digital inequalities that have always existed.
While the pandemic spurred organizations, major tech companies, and school districts to contribute computers and tech support to people in need, closing the long-held digital gap is not as simple as handing out computers. It requires reliable Internet, adequate devices, and digital literacy skills to take advantage of the technology.
WSU Extension has served Washington communities for over a century. When the need for greater access to broadband was identified, WSU Extension was ready to mobilize. Drawing on well-developed relationships with communities statewide, it was able to facilitate a host of public and private partners to launch a Drive-in Wi-Fi hotspots project in April 2020.
With WSU Extension offices in all 39 counties and on the Colville Reservation, Extension identified an opportunity for its offices to be a source of Internet access for WSU students and staff to complete the spring semester. A partnership emerged with the Washington State Broadband Office and the Washington State Library to fund part of this effort and expand access through parking lots at locations statewide for use by all students and community members. The project grew to involve dozens of partners and more than 600 Drive-in Wi-Fi hotspots where anyone could park and access high-quality, high-speed Internet.
Although not a permanent solution to broadband needs in Washington state, these hotspots continue to provide free, publicly available emergency access in response to the coronavirus pandemic. WSU continues to expand its network of Drive-in Wi-Fi hotspots to help provide the high-speed Internet connections necessary for distance learning, remote work, telemedicine, and day-to-day essential services. In many communities, users can pair both the free wireless access with small business support, which has proven immensely helpful as small businesses have faced the toughest year in living memory trying to keep their families and staff safe, while also ensuring the continuation of their small business.
To track usage of the WSU Drive-In Wi-Fi hotspots, Extension personnel have used two data sources: a survey taken by those connecting to WSU Drive-in Wi-Fi equipment, and network usage data that was already being collected. Regarding usage, over 4,588 individuals accessed just the WSU locations alone, with an average of 154 clients served through this service daily. WSU also harnessed its internal assets to ensure this information was disseminated through social media, email, and physical mail both in English and Spanish.
The project enabled WSU Extension to better serve communities by leveraging public and private dollars for a nimble solution to bridge the digital divide during the pandemic. By drawing on relationships it had nurtured with key leaders in both government and the private sector, it was able to leverage engagement in an unprecedented way to make the project a reality. This exemplifies the best of community engagement, public service, and outreach and extension, and demonstrates adherence to WSU’s land-grant mission.
The initiative has provided an innovative, collaborative solution to a host of access problems. Its economic impacts have been significant ─ enabling students to remain in school, small businesses to compete, and individuals able to access unemployment benefits and pursue job opportunities. Now more than ever, Internet access is a necessity, not a luxury. This still active project has enabled thousands of individuals statewide to engage in the broader world.