Broadband Survey Illuminates Digital Divide on Key Peninsula

The KPC’s survey highlights problems and draws new partners to find solutions.

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The Key Peninsula Community Council recently completed a detailed analysis of its broadband survey from October 2020.

KPC Broadband Committee Chair Mark Cockerill said the survey was intended to provide more details into broadband issues on the KP in order to create a targeted and effective response. These details are important to identifying stakeholders in the community and service providers.

“This was an important first step to addressing the digital divide on the Key Peninsula,” Cockerill said. “We have a diagnosis. Now we can begin finding solutions.”

This diagnosis confirms what most KP residents already know: The KP has a broadband problem. More than half of survey participants reported internet download speeds of less than 11Mbps. The Federal Communications Commission defines the minimum standard for broadband as 25Mbps. Only 10% of survey participants reported speeds of 21Mbps or higher.

This 25Mbps standard was set by the FCC in 2015 and was criticized even then by FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel for not setting the goal high enough. In the five years since the last change, such criticism has become increasingly common.

“KP internet speeds are bad enough if you’re the only person using the internet, but the survey shows that’s rarely the case,” Cockerill said.

Just over 50% of survey participants share their internet connection with four or more people in a given household. With that many people and likely even more devices connected to the internet, those receiving 11Mbps or less at point of service might struggle to browse websites, let alone stream videos, upload content or use video conferencing.

Cockerill said the grimmest facet of these results was the volume of people who reported using their internet at home for school. The survey showed 73% of participants across the KP, and as high as 86% in some areas, use home internet for schoolwork.

“It’s one thing when slow internet interferes with your Netflix habit,” Cockerill said. “But it’s just not acceptable when it interferes with a child’s education.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has largely put to rest the notion that high-speed broadband is a luxury. Hugh Taylor, a Pierce County senior legislative analyst, said watching as classrooms transition to online learning made it even more clear how important internet accessibility is.

“I think most people agree on just how important broadband is to our daily lives,” Taylor said.

The Pierce County Broadband Connectivity and Access Evaluation from April 2019 refers to broadband as the “fourth utility.” While personal internet use, such as for social media or entertainment does make up a large proportion of user activity, most people are also using it for business — everything from telecommuting for work to making doctor appointments to buying groceries.

Pierce County still has no plans to enter the broadband business but officials voiced commitment to finding ways to facilitate the expansion and improvement of broadband, especially in underserved areas like the Key Peninsula. To that end, Taylor said the county’s broadband strategic plan, which is currently being drafted, is expected to be presented to the Pierce County Council by mid-March.

Cockerill and Taylor are working together to explore options to improve broadband on the KP. Cockerill said partnerships like this are the best thing so far to come from the broadband survey.
“We’re starting to get a lot of eyes on this broadband issue and that’s finding us new partners,” Cockerill said. “The more people we have working on this, the better.”

Recently Cockerill connected with KP Fire Chief Dustin Morrow, whose excitement for the broadband project is matched only by Cockerill’s. Morrow believes the fire department is in an ideal position to assist.

A couple of years ago Morrow led a project to provide fiber optic lines to KP fire stations. He regrets not having had a wider scope then and called it a missed opportunity to do more for the community.

“Our lines have more capacity than we’ll likely need, so I think there’s ways we could’ve extended that to help the community,” he said. “We’re still looking into our options there, I only wish I’d seen the bigger picture at the time.”

The fire department represents an investment in the community by the community. Morrow said it’s only natural in this position to leverage the department’s existing infrastructure to provide solutions to this issue. The fire department may also provide an added avenue to secure state and federal funding for broadband improvements.

“I lived and worked in Portland most my life. You get used to thinking about the way things are done in a city,” Morrow said. “But the Key Peninsula is in a different reality. It has different needs and challenges. We have to innovate solutions that will work for this community.”

There are a multitude of challenges that face broadband development on the KP, and for that reason there will need to be several different approaches and collaboration with many stakeholders. Questions persist about funding, feasibility of certain technologies and geographic restrictions.

And while Pierce County is not interested in managing a public internet utility, it is not yet clear which stakeholder will take on that role. Cockerill said these are the key questions to be answered in the next phases of the broadband project.

“We’ve still got plenty of work to do,” Cockerill said. “But this problem isn’t the nebulous blob it used to be. And we’ve got a lot more people on it than when we started.”