Drive‑in Wi‑Fi team earns inaugural FCC digital access award

Closeup of a high-speed broadband router
A high-speed broadband router is ready for installation at the Clarkston Heights Library in Clarkston, Wash., one of the early sites to launch the WSU-created Drive-In WiFi Hotspots Project.

The Federal Communications Commission honored a Washington State University-initiated partnership’s work to create drive-up broadband access at hundreds of locations statewide, among nationwide efforts to close the digital divide.

On Sept. 14, FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks recognized the Drive-In Wi-Fi Hotspots Project team among 22 inaugural Digital Opportunity Equity Recognition (DOER) Program awardees. DOER acknowledges efforts to provide communities nationwide with access to affordable, reliable broadband.

Monica Babine, senior associate for WSU Extension’s Program for Digital Initiatives; Mike Gaffney, director of Extension’s Community and Economic Development Program Unit; Cindy Aden, formerly of the Washington State Library, a division of the Washington Secretary of State; and Russ Elliott, director of the Washington State Broadband Office, part of the state’s Department of Commerce, co-led the project.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the team coordinated multiple companies and nonprofits to add more than 320 free broadband access locations across the state, bringing the total number of drive-in hotspots, to more than 600.

“What started with a vision to use WSU Extension sites as gateways to help our students access their courses, led to more than 600 Wi-Fi access points at schools, libraries, and offices across the state,” Babine said. “With help from our many partners, we used WSU’s land-grant presence as a launch pad to increase essential connections for education, health, and livelihood.  We’re grateful to the FCC for this recognition, which underlines the importance of that partnership.”

“We were delighted to help secure more than a dozen additional partners, including the Northwest Open Access Network and the Information Technology Disaster Resource Center, who together set up 140 new sites,” Elliott said. “The Drive-In WiFi Hotspots statewide partnership is already being leveraged as we work to provide permanent broadband solutions to meet our state goals.”

In addition to in-kind support from many partners, the Drive-In Wi-Fi Hotspots Project received funding from the Microsoft Corporation, Avista Foundation, and the State of Washington, and was launched at WSU by the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences (CAHNRS), the Provost’s Office, and the Office of External Affairs and Government Relations.

“Microsoft’s early funding was critical to our launch, and we are very grateful for that support,” Babine said. “Given the continued impacts of the pandemic, this project will continue to provide necessary access, and we welcome more involvement and opportunities to face the permanent broadband needs in our state.”

Visit the Drive-In Wi-Fi website for more information and a map of locations.

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