Finishing the Last Mile: Engagement & Civic Tech Starts with Access
Civic tech discussions frequently center on how to get government to work more efficiently by collaborating with tech companies and citizens. But this assumes a foundation of access for citizens that may not be there yet. Now Bill 5139 has been proposed by Senator Christine Rolfes (D-Kitsap) in the Washington State Senate to improve both internet access and competition in rural areas.
Roughly 10 percent of Americans, or 34 million people, still do not have access to quality internet service. Access is far worse with certain populations: 41% of Americans on Tribal lands and 39% of rural Americans lack access to high speed internet. By contrast, only 4 percent of Americans in urban areas lack access. This gap in internet service for some Americans is often referred to as the “Last Mile.”
Washington State, famous for its thriving high-tech economy, faces its own Last Mile challenges. Seattle is home to giants like Amazon and Microsoft, while rural Washington still struggles with connectivity challenges. 7% of Washingtonians people do not have reliable wired internet access. Over 400,000 have only one service provider. Over 460,000 do not have high-speed access. (Source) The digital divide hurts rural economies – connectivity impacts income, employment rates, and job creation. These under-served citizens are at several disadvantages:
- Education: Lack of usable internet access impacts students’ access to online education resources
- Jobs: Remote access to work is impossible, limiting citizens’ eligibility for lucrative tech jobs and limiting employers’ pool of applicants in areas that are already in short supply.
- Business Development: Communities with less internet service have a harder time attracting and keeping businesses.
- Less Competition: Customers with only one service provider have no choices for price or quality.
Bill 5139 seeks to improve internet access in rural areas by empowering Public Utility Districts (PUDs) to sell internet services. “Internet service is not a luxury in today’s world, it is a necessity,” Rolfes said. “If a business can’t have an online presence or a student can’t log on to their school’s website, they cannot function let alone succeed. The internet is as fundamental to our lives today as electricity and clean water… and it only makes sense they can provide affordable internet service along with their other utilities.”
14 of Washington’s 28 PUDs already offer wholesale high-speed internet in predominantly rural areas throughout Washington state. But they are restricted from selling services to retail customers: currently, only telecommunications companies can sell to consumers. Bill 5139 would authorize PUDs to sell internet service directly to consumers, improving choice and access, particularly in rural areas where larger telecoms may choose not to operate.
PUDs are community-owned and not-for-profit. “The bill’s intent reflects the original driving force behind the formation of PUDs in Washington State: the need for access to the reliable utility services necessary to drive the economy and keep people comfortable in their homes,” said Washington PUD Association Director George Caan.
Civic tech leaders are focused on innovating how government works through technology – streamlining government services, creating open access to agencies and data, using smart city tech to improve systems, and engaging transparently with citizens. The digital transformation from old bureaucracies to Gov 2.0 is unstoppable and positive. But fixing the Last Mile problem is critical to making sure that all citizens have better engagement with their government. Without equal internet access, government services and civic engagement with rural citizens may get worse, not better. Bill 5139 is an important step in closing the digital divide and keeping rural citizens connected.
Senate Bill 5139
Rolfes bill goes the ‘last mile,’ allows public internet retail option
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Paladin Data Systems is located in the small town of Poulsbo, WA, which has benefited from Kitsap County’s investment in accessible broadband. SMARTGOV helps government agencies streamline processes using cloud-based solutions to manage community development. Online permit and license processing, mapping, payment collection, communication with constituents, inspections and more — the work of development is managed in one simple portal. Because SMARTGOV is modular and ready to launch, communities can adopt our solutions quickly and affordably, saving time and money while delivering better customer service. Contact us to learn more.