When the Carpenter Road fire burned 64,000 acres in rural northeast Washington, the crew fighting the fire was without internet. In order to understand how the fire was moving and how to best position their firefighting resources, they had to drive GIS maps on removable media an hour from the county office out to the fire camp.

“When the fire ended, we said, ‘We’ve got to fix this,’” says Debra Hansen, director of Washington State University Extension in Stevens County. “So we created the Broadband Action Team, the BAT concept, and have been going gangbusters ever since. We need broadband for health care, education, businesses, jobs—we’re way beyond cat videos.”

Smoke rises from the Carpenter Road Fire in Washington
Carpenter Road Fire
(Courtesy Washington State Patrol)

Development of broadband infrastructure has been slow. As Hansen says, “Big internet providers don’t care about us. There’s no business case to bring broadband to 16 people per square mile.”

“It took 50 years to electrify the nation,” Microsoft president Brad Smith wrote in a 2018 blog post. “The millions of Americans waiting for broadband don’t have the luxury of time.”

It’s not just a matter of bringing infrastructure to rural America, Hansen says. Many people also need training in using email, smart devices, and the internet. “Our library district and economic development council are very involved in our BAT. They offer classes in technology use and solve tech problems at the library.”

Hansen describes a scene at the library in Colville where residents had a brief window of opportunity to sign up for heating bill assistance. “There were 100 people at the library,” she estimates, “trying to set up email accounts and log in to the assistance site on a first-come, first-served basis—and then the system crashed. It was heartbreaking.”

Monica Babine, a senior associate with WSU’s Program for Digital Initiatives, says that “what we’re doing is looking at ways WSU’s resources can be an anchor for communities.” Fiber into Extension offices, libraries, and health care centers with capacity beyond what that building needs can be tapped to “open the doors for others to come in.”

The power of the BAT is that it brings together constituents with local knowledge. “Local is important,” Babine says, “because, one, it helps identify gaps in infrastructure; two, it helps ensure we don’t overbuild; and three, when you look at the folks involved in Debra’s team, it’s health care, schools, libraries, economic development council members, and emergency responders. So having those people at the table ensures that we build the infrastructure where it’s going to be used. And, four, those folks at the table are the ones who are helping provide the digital skills training.”

“And having all those folks at the table,” adds Hansen, “allows them to share resources, so discussions that start with broadband infrastructure branch out to economic development and much more.”

Including, perhaps, a robust telemedicine infrastructure that would, in times of health care crises such as COVID-19, enable doctors and patients to work together without risk of cross-contamination.