Island County EDC looks to better broadband

The Island County Council of Governments has agreed to help fund a small portion of a proposed study that aims to improve broadband availability on Whidbey and Camano islands.

During its monthly meeting in Coupeville May 23, the council agreed to sign a letter of support and pledged $5,000 for the study, which could begin as soon as July 1 and take up to a year to complete.

The study is contingent on the award of a $50,000 state Department of Commerce grant from the Washington State Broadband Office, and is being pursued jointly by the Island County Economic Development Council and Island County Washington State University Extension Office.

Ron Nelson, executive director of the economic development council, said the study would build on a 2010 broadband survey the state conducted for all of Washington.

The survey resulted in a map of coverage areas but its accuracy in Island County is questionable. It showed better coverage than may be the reality, said Nelson, as there are still places on the island where residents can only receive 9.6 dial up service.

“Impossible, you can’t do your online banking, you can’t do any good Internet surfing, there is just no speed there,” Nelson said.

Determining what is available, where and what people need will be primary objectives of the study. It will also seek to identify how best to use the data, such as assisting in the planning of future telecommunications infrastructure, while also helping the county build its economy with the attraction of new businesses.

Nelson said broadband service can also be a quality of life issue, saying that studies have linked connectivity with family and friends as essential to the mental health of seniors citizens.

Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, who initially proposed the idea to Nelson, said WSU Extension and other organizations offering online education also have a vested interest. The county also is trying to better utilize its own web pages to inform the public about the goings on of government.

“If we don’t look for those folks in our community that don’t have that access, we’re doing a huge disservice,” Price Johnson said.

It didn’t take much convincing. Coupeville Port Commissioner Benye Weber said she was “totally supportive” of the effort while Langley Mayor Larry Kwarsick called it a “tiny investment for the potential benefit.”

If the grant is awarded, Nelson said the study will be largely conducted by WSU Extension. The group will use a survey and focus groups to achieve its objectives and the results will be release in 2013.

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