Communities across Pacific County are continuing to grapple with one of the worst economic downturns since the Great Depression. With a countywide unemployment rate of nearly 17 percent, the covid-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on our area, weakening local economies, threatening local businesses, and undermining the strength and vitality of our communities.
As a commissioner of Pacific County Public Utility District and in collaboration with Pacific County Broadband Working Group (PCBBWG), I have been working with others to help our county navigate this crisis while so many families and businesses are struggling. As we continue to work through these unprecedented times, one resource that could help many people in Pacific County and around the nation bounce back is expanded access to high-speed internet services.
The lack of access to broadband internet — which has historically been an issue for our county and rural communities across Washington — has only made the problems associated with the pandemic that much worse. For our 17,800 customers, reliable, high-speed internet access could make a real difference in how they run their businesses, how their children attend online classes for school, and even how they seek medical treatment through tele-health services.
As one of three elected PUD commissioners, I have been working with my colleagues to help draw attention to the lack of broadband access and the need to invest in expanding and enhancing our broadband infrastructure. We have taken strides to help people stay connected, like joining with other Public Utility Districts around the state to bring free WiFi hotspots into our communities. However, we know these efforts are not nearly enough and that in order to truly make universal broadband a reality for our rural and under-served communities, we cannot do it alone.
We need Congress to step up federal efforts, and Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) can help lead the charge on behalf of all rural Washingtonians. Rep. Jamie Herrera Butler (R-W3rd) met with our PCBBWG and community leaders in January to discuss this issue.
For too many homes and businesses in Pacific County, the confluence of poor connectivity and the need to conduct more of our lives online could have catastrophic impacts. Our struggle is not unique to rural parts of the country — we are frequently on the wrong side of the digital divide, and now is the time for intervention before the gap grows too wide to overcome. Without sufficient access to high-speed internet, our communities are in danger of being left behind. Local businesses will continue to struggle to reach new markets and attract employees; many of our students will be unable to learn and keep up with their peers; rural patients will be unable to access vital tele-health services that are more important than ever given the health crisis we are all living through; and we will continue to lose jobs, hurting local economies and undermining broader recovery efforts.
Lawmakers in Washington, D.C. should work to pass legislation that provides broad infrastructure funding and connects all communities, urban, suburban, and rural, to broadband internet and helps give our workers and local businesses a fighting chance to succeed in an economy that covid-19 has turned upside down.
There already is broad bipartisan consensus in Congress that internet connectivity is essential and can no longer be viewed as a luxury. Sens. Murray and Cantwell, and Rep. Herrera Butler have all proven they understand this issue and support equal access to the opportunities afforded by high-speed internet. I urge them to work with their colleagues in Congress to make sure we invest in rural broadband deployment so all Washingtonians have the same chance to succeed.
Debbie Oakes lives in Long Beach and represents the peninsula on the PUD Commission. The Pacific County BroadBand Working Group is an informal collaboration of the Ports of llwaco and Chinook, Port of Willapa Harbor, Pacific County Administration, Pacific PUD, Pacific Coount Economic Development Council, Pacific County Visitors Bureau, Shoalwater Bay Tribe, and the cities of Long Beach, llwaco, Raymond and South Bend.