Sooner than you think, you’re going to connect those dots and discover the whole state lit up.

THE VARIOUS PEOPLES OF Washington have successfully prevailed over many divides— mountain passes, raging rivers, ocean straits, even cultural differences— that separated comfort and prosperity from isolation and hard times. There were grim consequences to encounters with those divides, and sometimes stuff and people were jettisoned so a few could make it across. We wouldn’t be here at all if we had seriously miscalculated who had the right to survive.

Now, in a techno-economic system constantly challenged to be robust and resilient enough to meet the fiercest global competition, with 24/7 jobs, self-changing rules, much-touted organized complexity, and not a few unorganized complications, we’re confronted with a new divide that is both physical and metaphorical and that we have decided to call “digital.”

Writer William Gibson’s quip that the future is here, but isn’t distributed evenly, applies perfectly. Because the digital divide threatens to deepen the abyss between those with connectivity resources—education, knowledge, fast access to Internet backbones, digital pipelines, wireless infrastructure, fiber optic cable networks, and satellite links—and those without.

Rural Washington doesn’t have the luxury of infrastructure that can produce jobs, generate wealth, and provide a shared sense of a sustainable future. It once had what was thought to be unlimited natural resources, but times are much harder. Change is never easy: as with those divides of old, choices must be made, and help is welcome.

Enter CBDD: the Center to Bridge the Digital Divide. Housed at Washington State University in Pullman, it was formed in July 2001 by WSU Cooperative Extension and Professor Bill Gillis with the goal of connecting all the people of Washington with the world.

In an unfair world of winners and losers, “all” is a big word. But the center’s strength lies in the diversity, number, and composition of its partners: the top technology companies in Washington and the global economy; the entire roster of academic staff and extension personnel at WSU; and governmental, non-profit, and private interests who share the mission and goals of the center. Gillis also has a direct link to the local leadership and businesses of rural Washington.

An early partner, the Washington State Office of Trade and Economic Development (OTED), provided funding for the center’s start-up and has been at the forefront in advocating for connectivity in rural Washington.

“Businesses need improved connectivity to compete in a global marketplace, and communities have asked for more education to ensure they use connectivity in the most productive way possible,” said Martha Choe, director of OTED. “Our close relationship with the center is a good strategic fit with our mission. We support economic activities that strengthen the economic vitality for all citizens of the state by building on key investments.”

Thanks to the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the persistence of Governor Locke, there is more public funding being made available to help Washington communities build and sustain telecommunication infrastructure, now as necessary as water, sewer, and electricity. And if you look closely, you can also see the private sector building everywhere.

The benefits of new telecommunication infrastructure investments are many, from grade schools to retail, municipal services to health care and commercial operations. It is even credited with rekindling civic participation. Bottom line, it provides another tool for human ingenuity, enabling people to generate new jobs and stay in their communities.

There are paradoxes in any public policy, and they’ll give us all a lot to talk about for a while. Why the lights go on and then off on Route 128, in Silicon Valley, in Austin and Redmond and other places is something of a mystery to economists. Good times and then hard times can and will come to anybody’s door. But sooner than you think, dots of lights are going to come on in our darkened rural corners, in those communities of goodwill that have been giving you food and fiber for decades, and you’re going to connect those dots and discover the whole damn state lit up.


Terry Lawhead works for the Washington State Office of Trade and Economic Development in Eastern Washington.