It began with a simple idea. With offices serving every one of Washington’s 39 counties as well as the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, why couldn’t Washington State University Extension open high-speed wireless connections right outside their doors to help students access online resources during statewide social distancing efforts?
Sparked by lessons learned during Extension’s 2014 Oso mudslide recovery work, and championed by the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences (CAHNRS), WSU Provost’s Office, and the WSU Office of External Affairs and Government Relations, the Drive-In Wi-Fi Hotspots Project quickly drew support from the Washington State Broadband Office, Microsoft Corporation, Avista, Washington State Library, a division of the Secretary of State, and other partners.
Launched in late April, the Drive-In WiFi partnership has begun placing broadband access points at WSU’s county and tribal Extension centers, as well as schools, libraries, and community centers across the state.
“As we stay home to stay safe, our students and neighbors are going online to continue their education and support their families and communities,” said André-Denis Wright, dean of CAHNRS. “With Extension’s statewide reach, we saw a powerful opportunity to strengthen the digital connection, especially for people and places with limited access.”
Closing the access gap
In Washington, nearly one in 10 rural residents lack access to high-speed broadband. Nationally, about 15 percent of rural Americans are offline. For students, limited access hinders their ability to contact advisors or access academic resources.
“Drive-In WiFi doesn’t solve the rural broadband problem—it shines a light on it,” said Nick Pappin, assistant director of operations for CAHNRS, who leads the project’s technical effort.
For WSU students, the project allows direct access to the university’s wireless network. They’ll be able to chat with advisors and access academic resources. Linked to an educational technology consortium called EduRoam, it also allows students from other educational institutions to log in just as if they were at their own schools or dormitories.
Members of the public will also be able to access the Internet using drive-in hotspots, through a separate public portal.
“This is critical for all members of our communities,” said Monica Babine, senior associate for WSU Extension’s Program for Digital Initiatives. Access is necessary for K-12 students whose classes are only available online, people working from home, those needing online-only government services. It also addresses a significant increase in telehealth due to limited in-person medical care.
With support from Microsoft Corporation, installation of 15 hotspot devices began in April, starting in Island County and Ferry County, where Extension director Trevor Lane recorded a video tutorial to help colleagues and partners get started.
The devices are managed from the cloud. Local partners simply plug them in and turn them on. Regarding capacity, “we’ll run out of parking spots” before running out of bandwidth, Pappin said.
“This project expands our current network to the entire state, including our four Research and Extension Centers, multiple research outposts, 39 county offices, and our cooperative partnership with the Colville Tribe,” Pappin said. “It has really helped hit the accelerator,” doubling the number of county offices with high-speed broadband.
In addition to state and private partners, WSU worked with members of Washington’s congressional delegation, including Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray and Reps. Kim Schrier and Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, to demonstrate how the approach could potentially help underserved areas nationally as well.
Helping with long-term recovery
“The Oso slide was really the genesis of this idea,” said Mike Gaffney, drive-in hotspots project co-leader and director of Extension’s Community and Economic Development Program Unit.
Six years ago, Gaffney led part of WSU’s response to a different disaster: The March 22, 2014, Oso mudslide, which killed 43 people near the communities of Oso and Darrington, Wash.
“For months, if you did business in Darrington, the only place you could find Wi-Fi was in the library parking lot,” he said.
Extension often supports Washington communities following disasters, for example, managing large animal shelters, or coordinating donations. Its most important role, however, is in long-term recovery.
“That’s where Extension really comes into its power,” Gaffney said. “We bring research-based information to help communities mitigate, rebuild, and improve.”
WSU Extension is nationally recognized for its long history of working to help increase broadband awareness, access and use, Babine said.
“We support rural and tribal communities in the formation of locally-led Broadband Action Teams, work on state and federal broadband policy, and provide valuable research and training,” she said. “WSU is a leader in meeting the digital needs in our state now and we will continue that work into the future.”
COVID-19 is unique, but the Drive-In WiFi Hotspots Project fits firmly within WSU Extension’s land-grant mission to serve through knowledge. After communities recover, parking lot Wi-Fi could become a permanent feature across Washington.
“The lack of Internet access doesn’t go away when COVID is over,” Gaffney said.