Pierce County identifies potential broadband improvement areas

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The slow internet speeds on the Key Peninsula have made the Pierce County Library System branch a magnet for customers seeking faster Wi-Fi, said librarian Corrine Weatherly in 2019. “Most people who don’t have great connectivity can’t afford their getting work done (here) faster and more efficiently.”

draw.perine@thenewstribune.com

It’s a problem Mark Cockerill knows all too well. A Key Peninsula resident for more than 15 years, he’s experienced it with frustrating regularity, he says, and has seen the impact it’s had on many of his neighbors.

Whether it’s kids trying to finish their homework, parents trying to work from home, or seniors trying to make important medical appointments, going online can be more than a headache, Cockerill told The News Tribune.

Sometimes, in the Key Peninsula, it can be downright impossible, he says.

“It affects everyday life, the things people take for granted,” Cockerill said. “The further south you go, the more rural you get, the worse it gets, and the frustration is just phenomenal.”

Cockerill, a retired programmer and software consultant, moved to the Key Peninsula in 2005 with his wife Marie.

Earlier this week, the Pierce County Council acknowledged what it has long known: Many of its neighbors have the worst Internet access in all of Pierce County.

The County Council’s admission came in the form of an ordinance likely to be passed next month that would designate five “Broadband Development Districts” across the county.

An important step in the government’s slow progress, the five counties — two along the Key Peninsula and three more in some of the county’s southeastern corners — are where Pierce County’s long-running effort to dramatically improve Internet access will begin, according to County Council President Derek Young.

The most encouraging news of all?

Young — who has served on the council for more than seven years and has spent just as long on the need for the county to take a proactive role in expanding broadband in rural communities — said he is hopeful that projects that support high-speed broadband to these areas “will break ground” by the time he leaves office at the end of the year.

For the sake of Cockerill and the thousands of rural people of Pierce County like him, let’s hope he’s right.

In the year 2022, especially after the coronavirus pandemic made it crystal clear, there’s just no excuse for so many people to wallow in dial-up speeds at home or drive their kids to the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant with Wi-Fi. to finish their schoolwork.

“We’re starting in the areas that have no access to high-speed broadband completely, and from there we’ll start working back to the areas that are underutilized,” Young said.

In addition to areas to the north and south of the Key Peninsula, the proposed County Council ordinance also identifies three more broadband development districts.

One includes much of rural Pierce County, mostly south of Buckley, stretching toward Route 162 and Orting state.

Another mentions the Nisqually region, northwest of Eatonville.

The third identifies a patch of land near Alder Lake.

According to Young, the interest in bringing high-speed broadband to these areas goes back many years. In 2019, an independent assessment of Internet access in Pierce County highlighted the problem, finding that many rural communities lack broadband access. That same year, the County Council passed a resolution designating broadband internet as “essential infrastructure.”

Most importantly, the County Council has allocated $15 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding by 2021 to expand broadband access. As The News Tribune reported at the time, the council’s plan calls on the county to use the money — along with state and federal grants — to boost (and essentially subsidize) private broadband expansion in the areas of Pierce County that support it. need the most

While Pierce County’s current plan calls for focusing first on driving improvements in the five Broadband Development Districts, there are a number of areas in Pierce County that would benefit from increased access to high-speed broadband internet, Young said.

Overall, Young said the problem is so pronounced in many rural areas — and the need for Internet access is so great — that the county had no choice but to intervene.

“I think we’ve reached a point where the internet is useful. … The reality is that it has become a necessary part of our lives,” said Young. “I think this is a two-pronged issue because if you represent a rural area, you know it’s a problem.”

On Thursday, Cockerill said he was encouraged by the progress Pierce County appears to be making in providing high-speed broadband to the Key Peninsula. Like Young, improving internet access in this corner of the county has long been a goal of his, including as director of the Key Peninsula Community Council.

Still, Cockerill said, there’s no time to lose — and the job won’t be done until its neighbors have the same access that so many others in the county already enjoy.

He is exactly right.

“The people here are not on par with other people in more urban or suburban areas because they don’t have an internet connection,” Cockerill said.

“This is much too late.”

Matt Driscoll is a columnist for The News Tribune and the newspaper’s opinion editor. McClatchy President’s Award winner Driscoll is passionate about Tacoma and strives to tell stories that would otherwise never be told.

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