Federal Way to address ‘digital deserts’ for local internet connection

Pandemic reveals heightened broadband infrastructure demands for remote learning and remote work.

Federal Way will soon undergo an internet broadband study to address the city’s digital deserts and develop a high-speed internet city fiber network.

On Dec. 7, the Federal Way City Council accepted a $50,000 grant for the “Federal Way Broadband Planning Study,” provided by the Washington Community Economic Revitalization Board (CERB). The board announced investments of $3.3 million in four counties on Nov. 22.

The broadband project consists of a feasibility study to assess the potential for developing a high-speed city fiber network for Federal Way, according to the board. The CERB funds are matched by $25,000 in federal ARPA funds from the city. The total study cost will be $75,000.

At the city council’s February 2020 retreat, the council agreed upon the goal of becoming a “tech hub,” said Tim Johnson, economic development director.

In September, the City of Federal Way determined that improved broadband access is vital for economic development, improving diversity and inclusion, and enhancing education.

“Enhancing broadband was identified early on in the pandemic as essential due to remote learning, work and the demands it brought on the existing broadband infrastructure in the city,” stated a Sept. 7 city memorandum.

In early 2020, the city provided $100,000 in CARES Act funding to the Federal Way Public Schools district to acquire internet hot spots located near areas where students experience inadequate internet connection.

The was a “Band-Aid” solution, the city said. The pandemic revealed heightened broadband infrastructure demands when it comes to remote learning and remote work.

An assessment is needed to determine what internet speeds are available in the city, the internet speed adequacy in the city, what infrastructure improvements are needed and the digital deserts within Federal Way.

Federal Way currently relies on Century Link for digital subscriber line (DSL) service, and Comcast “does not provide adequate speeds for many households,” the memorandum stated.

“There is a need for affordable broadband that can handle the internet demands of a modern household,” it stated.

“High-speed internet access, or broadband, is critical to economic opportunity, job creation, education, and civic engagement,” according to a 2020 report from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). But, there is a “digital divide” between people who have access to high speed internet/advanced telecommunications, and those who do not, the report states, and most of the divide depends on fixed broadband networks.

FCC data from 2017 estimates about 0.2% of Americans do not have access to high-speed mobile broadband service, which rises to about 0.9% in rural areas and approximately 3% on Tribal lands.

The study’s work is set to beginning in 2022. Work and examination will be performed through hiring a consultant.

Materials outlining the scope of work will be developed and provided to the Federal Way City Council in January for approval, Johnson added.

Overall, CERB approved $2,431,250 in grants and $843,750 in low-interest loans for economic development, public infrastructure, and broadband development. The four additional recipients are in Cowlitz, Grays Harbor and Whatcom counties.