With schools pivoting towards online learning and face-to-face gatherings going digital thanks to the pandemic, having a good internet connection these days is crucial.
In a move towards making broadband universally available, the Washington State Broadband Office has launched an initiative to bring free public broadband internet access to all residents. They are estimating that over 300 new drive-in WiFi hotspots will be coming online statewide.
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The free WiFi zones are launching primarily as parking lot hotspots and will be accessible regardless of how users arrive at the locations. Several sites will even offer indoor public access during business hours and require everyone to practice physical distancing.
“Depending on where you live, some seniors can’t refill prescriptions, furloughed workers can’t apply for unemployment benefits, small businesses can’t access financial assistance, and students can’t do their homework,” said Commerce Director Lisa Brown in a news release Thursday.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is shining a bright light on what was already a significant challenge for the state – delivering ubiquitous, scalable broadband connectivity to all Washington citizens and businesses. This crisis has fueled the energy around seeing these deliverables come to fruition as broadband is no longer a luxury, but critical infrastructure for all,” said Washington State Broadband Office Director Russ Elliott in a news release.
To date, 140 of the new drive-in hotspots are currently operational, in addition to 301 existing Washington State Library hotspots identified across the state. In total, around 600 public hotspots will soon be available to keep Washington communities connected.
Partners in the state’s drive-in WiFi hotspots project include Washington State University, Washington State Library, part of the Washington Office of the Secretary of State, members of the Washington Public Utility Districts Association (WPUDA) and affiliated non-profit Northwest Open Access Network (NoaNet), the Washington State Broadband Office, Washington Independent Telecommunications Association (WITA), Washington Technology Solutions (WaTech), and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).
Funding is being provided by Microsoft and the Avista Foundation, while the federal Information Technology Disaster Resource Center has contributed equipment and helped with the installation.
Those searching for the free WiFi zones can use an online map released by the Washington State Department of Commerce, which lists out all of the drive-in locations.