Feds Pumps $54.5M in Stimulus Funds into Washington State to Expand Broadband Service, Spark Economic Growth

The Northwest Open Access Network (NoaNet) has received an additional $54.5 million in Recovery Act funds to expand high-speed broadband Internet to underserved areas across Washington state. U.S. Secretary of Commerce and former Washington state Gov. Gary Locke announced the funding, alongside U.S. Reps. Jay Inslee and Brian Baird, at the Seattle Central Library yesterday. All three touted the project as a way to bridge the technological divide, boost economic growth, create jobs, improve educational resources and access to healthcare, and connect the rural regions of the state to the digital economy.

“This critical investment will lay the groundwork for sustainable economic growth by connecting difficult terrain both east and west of the Cascades that has been without the full economic, educational and social benefits of high-speed Internet,” Locke said.

This is the second federal grant Tacoma, WA-based NoaNet has been awarded in the last year for the State of Washington Broadband Consortium, a $185 million project to bring Internet access to 170 communities, and 2,000 schools, libraries, universities, hospitals, and emergency response agencies that lack adequate service. The first grant, for $84 million, was awarded in March.

Altogether, the $185 million will finance the construction of more than 1,300 miles of new fiber, bringing affordable broadband Internet service to 55 Washington communities labeled by NoaNet as “economically depressed.” The project will directly affect 538,559 households and 103,230 businesses throughout 25 of the state’s 39 counties. The plan will also enhance connectivity to six Native American tribal communities in Washington, including the Tulalip Tribes of Washington, the Kalispel Tribe of Indians, the Yakama Nation, the Lower Elwha Kallam Tribe of Indians, the Suquamish Tribe, and the Port Gamble S’Kallam Tribe of Indians.

“This broadband initiative will create immediate jobs, attract economic investment to rural areas, and provide reliable, high-speed Internet,” NoaNet CEO Greg Marney said in a statement released yesterday. “Imagine a rural doctor being able to instantaneously share a patient’s test results and consult with an expert at any major medical center in the world. It’s a big deal for rural Washington.”

The NoaNet project focuses on remote areas, because they are those that most often have rudimentary capabilities. And according to Marney, greater broadband connectivity will bring  an overall enhancement to the quality of life in the areas served. Not only will these communities now have attractive economic appeal that could pull in outside businesses, but those living in even the most remote parts of the state will be able to quickly access and share critical information among fire, police, hospitals, and first responders.

“This is a game-changer for many communities,” Marney said. “It just like when electricity was finally extended to rural communities in the 1930s and 1940s. Broadband will help save lives, reduce government costs, help educate young people, and create business opportunities.”

The news came on the same day that Vice President Joe Biden announced an approximately $1.8-billion investment in new projects to create jobs and stimulate economic opportunities in 37 states across the country.

“Investment in Broadband will be a fuel for the engine of our economic recovery,” Inslee said. “NoaNet’s State of Washington Broadband Consortium is one more link in our economic chain that will bring broadband access to underserved communities in the 1st district, and build upon the open Internet that has created millions of new jobs and given thousands of Washingtonians access to the global marketplace.”

“This is a great example of the Recovery Act at work, investing in our infrastructure with increased broadband Internet access,” Baird said. “Rural areas make up a large part of southwest Washington, and high-speed Internet access in these areas will help level the playing field. Small businesses can better compete regionally and nationally, and our kids can take advantage of greater educational opportunities for generations to come.”

Coincidentally, for such a tech-oriented state, Washington has not historically had the greatest broadband service. In its 2008 “State of the Internet Report,” Cambridge, MA-based Akamai found Washington state dead last in terms of Internet connection speeds.

Last month, Seattle-based network diagnostic company Ookla (the folks behind Speedtest.net and Pingtest.net) released some more recent statistics that ranked global Internet quality, compared service providers, and broke down analysis down to an individual IP address. The resulting report was the Net Index, based on data collected and analyzed from over 7 million tests from nearly 33 million unique IP address between July 19, 2010 and August 17, 2010. The report found that the United States ranks 27th in terms of Internet quality globally, and revealed that Washington state has climbed up in ranks over the last two years. We’re now in seventh place nationwide (and first off the East Coast) behind Delaware, Massachusettes, Rhode Island, Virginia, New Jersey, and Maryland.

But perhaps the most shocking piece of information to come out of the Index, is that when you look at the top 50 cities within Washington state, Seattle ranks way down at the bottom—or close to it—in 47th place. Still, decent Internet is better than none, and soon local leaders are hoping that access to the World Wide Web will be readily available from every corner of the state.

“This is great news for communities across Washington state,” Gov. Chri Gregoire said. “It’s these types of investments that have real results for Washingtonians. Expanding our broadband access puts people to work immediately—and creates jobs, educational opportunities, and improves community safety for the future.”

“Washington state—especially the city of Seattle—has long been ahead of the curve when it comes to understanding the importance of broadband technology, and I think there is no better region that will better utilize this funding,” U.S. Representative Jim McDermott said. “This project will not only improve connectivity for countless Washington state residents, but will equip our region’s public safety entities and health care organizations with cutting edge technology.  I’m pleased that the administration recognizes that improving broadband connectivity is a priority, and I want to thank them for recognizing that Washington state will put these funds to good use.”

Thea Chard is a correspondent for Xconomy Seattle. You can e-mail her at theachard@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/theachard. Follow @

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