A Spotlight on King County, Washington

Please give us a brief overview on the status of broadband connectivity in King County.

Digital equity is one of our fundamental social justice goals, as access to information and technology is essential for residents to fully participate and prosper in our global world. We completed our Broadband Access and Adoption Study in January. The results helped identified areas of the County that lack access to broadband speeds of 25/3. As part of the study, we conducted a survey in collaboration with community-based organizations, local housing authority, school districts, non-English speaking groups, insecure housing groups, and a local municipality. The survey results provide the County with insights into attitudes about technology as well as the barriers residents face using and accessing technology resources. This survey builds on work from local municipalities and includes insights not only into access and affordability, but also on attitudes, literacy, usage and skills as they relate to digital engagement.

Overall, our study results shows the vast majority (96%) of King County residents report having internet access in their home, but significant differences are observed across certain groups in King County.

  • Significantly, higher rates of households that lack internet access occur in low-income homes (19%), for the insecurely housed (19%), for people living with a disability (13%) and for non-English speaking households (13%).
  • Households earnings at or below 135% or 200% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) are significantly less likely (19% and 16%) to have internet access at home.
  • Residents in households earning less than $50,000 per year are less likely to access the internet from work and significantly more likely to access it from a library–or not at all.
  • Forty-seven percent (47%) of households who would qualify for low- cost equipment and internet programs were not aware of the five programs tested in the broadband survey.
  • One in four King County households report having slow internet speeds of 25 Mbps or less. Conversely, two in five (39%) report faster speeds (above 25 Mbps).

This was the County’s first ever-broadband study and highlights that sustaining vibrant communities must include removing barriers preventing low-income and rural residents in our community from full and equitable digital engagement. Our data-driven understanding of broadband and barriers to access will support advocacy and the study’s recommendations for expanding broadband service, equipment, and training for households in underserved communities.

What concerns do residents have about broadband access?

Similar to other large municipalities, King County includes both rural and urban areas. The primary concern for residents in the County’s more rural or unincorporated areas is lack of broadband infrastructure and the cost to build it. Filling this gap will be expensive, as building new broadband infrastructure requires massive capital investment, whether public or private. Unincorporated King County faces the same challenges as other rural communities with respect to attracting broadband infrastructure investment.

Even in the most affluent rural and semi-rural areas, the economics simply do not pencil out for broadband deployment based solely on private sector investment. The private sector will not build costly wireline infrastructure to reach all homes and businesses in rural areas simply because the potential return on investment does not exist. Only a public-private funded partnership will solve this challenge and ensure all County residents can access digital services, shop online, receive telehealth services, use remote learning and otherwise fully participate in our digital economy.

Overall, households responding to our survey expressed concerns about other barriers limiting their digital engagement. Almost one in four households (23%) cite the cost of service as the most common barrier, followed by slow or inconsistent speeds and confusing service plans. Three-fourths of households report having “mostly” or “completely” adequate internet access. Residents’ confidence in their ability to use technology safely and confidently for a better life also appeared in the survey.

Has the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic impacted broadband connectivity or spurred action to increase and/or diversify connectivity in King County? Are there specific challenges that residents face because of COVID-19? Are there challenges that have been exacerbated by the pandemic?

One thing the pandemic has made abundantly clear is the need for digital access. Stated again, “Digital equity is, put simply, a fundamental social-justice goal, as access to information and technology is essential to fully participating and prospering in our global community.” The coronavirus pandemic has created a technology crisis; most libraries, community centers and other public space that offered computer, internet and printing services have closed, while schools from kindergarten to college have gone online.

What are potential solutions to the broadband connectivity challenges in King County?

Our study provides recommendations applicable to the needs of the unserved and underserved. Our strategies focus on short- and long-term incremental benefit to all areas of the County and include:

  • Federal and State funding sources represent an important element of large-scale broadband deployments, though only for unserved areas where no broadband is currently available. While these programs tend to have restrictions that affect their potential breadth of impact, our analysis is that the programs have the potential to assist the County’s efforts to greatly reduce the number of homes and businesses that are entirely unserved.
  • Identify private partners to fill rural broadband gaps, partially through County funding, supplemented with potential state and federal funds.
  • Coordinate County initiatives with state efforts and State funding programs.
  • Work with local housing authorities to deliver subsidized broadband service to residents of public housing.
  • Develop a broadband office to execute and coordinate strategies and measurements, including partnerships with regional stakeholders.
  • Develop “dig-once” construction policies to efficiently add to County-owned assets over-time.
  • Continue and expand upon broadband data collection efforts in order to track progress over time and target investments.
  • Develop public-private partnerships with wireless providers to fill unserved and underserved gaps.
  • Leverage existing cable franchise relationships to identify opportunities to jointly solve build-out and last mile connectivity for households.

The broadband study recommendations represent best practices that will, over time, enable the County to learn more and maximize its strategic options in the future. To see the full list of recommendations, visit the link below to the full comprehensive report.

Are there organizations, initiatives, and/or individuals that are working to increase broadband connectivity/access that should be recognized?

At King County, we believe in equal access to technology to improve the quality of everyone’s life.

The study supports efforts to think bigger and engage in public-private partnerships to increase broadband infrastructure options. We would like to thank our Broadband steering committee for their commitments to ensuring Broadband access for all.  The City of Seattle’s Digital Equity Office for their ongoing leadership advocating Internet for all. We would like to thank more than 22 community-based organizations, plus King County Housing Authority, Lake Washington and Renton School Districts for reaching into their community to participate in our digital access and adoption survey,

Our goal is to enable expansion of broadband access to every household and residents in our County.

Comprehensive Report

For a deep dive into all aspects of the study, including study methodology, findings and recommended solution options visit https://www.kingcounty.gov/depts/it/services/cable-communications/broadband-access-study.aspx

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