In Sunnyside, library patrons now have access to free Wi-Fi Internet access. Farther down the Valley, Grandview police officers are getting information via computers much faster in their patrol cars.
That’s the kind of difference that faster Internet connections can make in rural communities as a result of a major build-out of fiber optic cable by the Northwest Open Access Network, or NoaNet.
The Olympia-based nonprofit is about to complete the second phase of installation in the Yakima Valley. Over the last year, it has built more than 50 new miles of fiber that have provided schools, libraries, law enforcement agencies and other public entities in the Valley with faster Internet speeds.
The first phases of construction, which were completed earlier this year, brought 21 miles of fiber to Sunnyside, Mabton, Grandview and Toppenish, and the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office substation at Zillah Lakes. The new fiber connects the communities to an existing fiber optic line installed by Yakima County along the train tracks from Naches to Grandview.
The second phase will bring the additional 30 miles of new fiber to White Swan and Harrah and along Interstate 82 from Yakima to Grandview; it’s expected to be completed by next month.
The new fiber was funded with two grants totaling $140 million that NoaNet secured in 2010 from the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, which was part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment of 2009, better known as the federal stimulus.
The grants, along with additional matching funds of about $47 million from NoaNet and public agencies, have funded the construction of 1,000 miles of fiber optic cable to rural and less-populated areas statewide. About $5 million was spent on new fiber in Yakima County.
While the new fiber provides faster Internet for public agencies, it doesn’t make broadband more accessible or affordable for low-income residents on the Yakama reservation and elsewhere in the Lower Valley.
But without the grants, these low-density population areas would be hard-pressed to get the new fiber installed at all, said Angela Bennink, a spokeswoman for NoaNet. For most private Internet providers, building fiber optic cable in rural areas is prohibitive because the revenue base is too small to cover the required investment in new infrastructure.
The fiber can transmit at speeds up to 100 gigabits per second, which not only enables faster speeds but ensures there’s plenty of capacity as people demand more bandwidth in the future, Bennink said.
“Our goal was to build 10 years in advance to allow growth along the way (so) those rural communities still have the same capacity as urban areas,” she said.
Closing the digital divide — a technology gap that leaves lower-income Americans unwired — is a priority for the Obama administration. Most recently, President Barack Obama announced an initiative called ConnectED, aimed at getting 99 percent of all students on a high-speed broadband and wireless Internet connection within five years. Connecting rural areas is a key part of that initiative.
The need has been great at the Mount Adams School District on the Yakama reservation, which has a wireless 20-megabit-per-second Internet connection for about 350 computers. When all the computers are on the Internet, even simple tasks, such as recording attendance or doing basic research online, can be slow and tedious, school officials said.
And forget streaming video or adding iPads to the network.
“When everyone is trying to connect, there’s not a lot of (bandwidth) for individual use,” said Jon Scott, technology director for the Mount Adams School District.
With the new fiber, the school district will get a connection of 100 megabits per second. That will not only give teachers the ability to do basic tasks more easily, but will also enable them to integrate more Internet content in the classroom.
“Bringing video over the Internet into the classroom on a broader scale will be a big improvement,” Scott said.
Meanwhile, other agencies are already taking advantage of the new fiber. For example, the Grandview campus of Yakima Valley Community College used to share a 10-megabit connection with the Yakima campus. That meant that by the time the connection reached the Grandview campus, the speeds were considerably slower. Now both campuses have equal access to a 100-megabit connection.
That’s great timing for the college, which will launch a new online student portal this fall that will allow students from both campuses to apply for admission, register for classes and get information on extracurricular activities all in one place. This type of portal requires a lot of bandwidth, said Scott Towsley, YVCC’s director of technology services.
A faster connection can provide opportunities to adopt cost-saving measures like a virtual desktop system, where all the computers on both campuses would be operated from a single server, which is less costly than buying multiple desktops.
Not far from the Grandview YVCC campus, the Grandview Police Department is also enjoying an upgrade to its Internet connection. The department’s former wireless connection was not always reliable, and data was often lost when the system was disconnected, police Chief David Charvet said.
“It’s just a lot quicker, smoother and there’s less chance for losing data,” Charvet said.
Through new fiber in Sunnyside, the Sunnyside branch of the Yakima Valley Libraries has been able to offer Wi-Fi. It wasn’t too long ago that a streaming video played by one patron could halt speeds to a snail’s pace for everyone else, said Kim Hixson, director of Yakima Valley Libraries. Now, with a 100-megabit connection, there’s plenty to go around.
“Pretty much, we can accommodate what people want,” she said.
While the NoaNet efforts have focused on providing faster access to public agencies, the general public may also benefit from the new infrastructure. New fiber installed by NoaNet in rural communities could prompt additional private investment by providers who may see a business opportunity, said Wilford Saunders, state broadband policy and program director for the state Broadband Office, which is part of the state Department of Commerce.
“If you’re not getting the customer now, in the next couple of years, other (providers) will have the market share,” Saunders said.
• Mai Hoang can be reached at 509-759-7851 or firstname.lastname@example.org.