Gregoire hails expansion of broadband internet access in rural Mid-Columbia

The rural Mid-Columbia is undergoing a change as significant as the extension of electrical service in the past century, said Gov. Chris Gregoire on Thursday in Kennewick.

Much of an expanded fiber optic network bringing broadband's high-speed data transmission for internet use has been completed in Eastern Washington.

"Access to broadband is as essential as access to electricity 80 years ago," Gregoire said during a celebration at the Kennewick Branch of the Mid-Columbia Libraries.

That network provides better education for students, improved emergency service, coordinated patient care, a chance for small, rural businesses to reach a worldwide base of potential customers and the opportunity for grandmothers in rural areas to Skype with their grandkids, speakers said.

This spring, the Franklin County Public Utility District with the nonprofit Northwest Open Access Network, or NoaNet, finished a 64-mile fiber optic infrastructure from Pasco to Kahlotus. It hooks onto the spider web of NoaNet fiber optic lines across the state.

That completion delivers one of the fastest and most capable fiber optic networks in the world to places along the new 64-mile route, according to NoaNet.

Children at Edwin Markham Elementary School north of Pasco now can use the internet, said Tim Nies, director of administrative services for the Franklin PUD and a NoaNet board member.

Lourdes Family Health Center in Connell has broadband service available. And the Kahlotus Branch of Mid-Columbia Libraries can offer its patrons free high-speed internet use.

Last month, a 19-mile branch from Othello to Warden also was completed.

Benton PUD plans to extend the fiber optic network across southern Benton County to Paterson and also to West Richland.

NoaNet's goal has been to bring broadband to as many libraries, schools, medical clinics and other community institutions as possible in underserved areas.

But businesses also will benefit, Gregoire said, using a quilt shop in Reardan as an example.

It grew from a tiny business struggling to find enough local shoppers to an enterprise needing to hire 15 employees as it built an online customer base with regular orders from as far away as Germany and Japan, she said.

NoaNet and PUDs worked together to hammer out plans to extend broadband service to rural areas of the state, but had little money to build until the 2008 recession hit.

Then, the federal government announced it would award Recovery Act money to improve broadband service, but only in states ready to build.

"Guess who was at the front of the line?" Gregoire said.

Washington, with 2 percent of the nation's population, received $243 million, or 7 percent of all the money in the Recovery Act broadband program, she said.

It's helping deliver high-speed internet access to 99 percent of Washington residents, she said. The Census Bureau ranks Washington as among the top three most-wired states in the nation.

Gregoire would like to improve that to match the state's standing as the most trade-dependent state in the nation, she said.

"Without internet, we cannot export products as we should," she said.

Gregoire also toured the Kennewick Branch library Thursday, dancing the "funky monkey" with the kids at story time and talking to those using some of the library's 45 public computers.

Demand keeps growing at the Mid-Columbia Libraries for services depending on broadband, including e-books, public internet sessions and free access to wireless service within library branches, said Executive Director Kyle Cox.