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'Drive-By Wi-Fi': Hotspots popping up to bridge digital divide amid virus pandemic

Mason PUD 3
The Tahuya fire station, in rural Mason County, Washington, is one of the sites tapped to host a drive-up Wi-Fi hotspot.

Distance learning, ordering groceries online or applying for unemployment, those are all kind of difficult without a good internet connection. So, at least seven public utilities spanning Washington state are setting up drive-up Wi-Fi hotspots amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The purpose is to provide free high speed internet to families, especially rural students, who don't have access at home. Many traditional public Wi-Fi access points such as libraries and coffee shops are currently closed.

The latest utility to announce a community Wi-Fi hotspot initiative is Mason Public Utility District No. 3, headquartered in Shelton.

"What we picture is that people will be able to drive up to one of these designated locations, pull up and stay in their car for appropriate social distancing, and then log in," said Justin Holzgrove, director of engineering and utility services for Mason PUD 3.

In an interview Friday, Holzgrove said his utility has mapped out close to 20 suitable "Drive-By Wi-Fi" locations at a variety of parks, fire stations, community halls, port authority offices and a few rural schools. He said the necessary outdoor Wi-Fi base station equipment has been ordered for installation over the next three weeks.

"A lot of these locations have asked if the wireless equipment can stay up for longer than just the COVID-19 pandemic," Holzgrove said. "Our response has been if it all goes well, then I don't see why it can't stay up... This could become a good community asset for these areas."

Holzgrove did not have a figure for how many Mason County households lack access to broadband internet, but guessed it was "a lot."

Pend Oreille PUD and Franklin PUD in Eastern Washington were at the leading edge to get their free community Wi-Fi hotspots up and running in response to the switch to online learning after the statewide school closure. Pend Oreille activated hotspots at four small town locations in the northeast corner of Washington state in late March. Pasco-based Franklin PUD launched earlier this week with four locations spread across its southeast Washington service territory.

Jefferson County PUD launched a test Wi-Fi hotspot at its customer service office near Port Townsend in mid-April. As of this week, the offering had grown to five free hotspots  across its territory with a few more to come.

The City of Ellensburg's utilities department just got in the act too, with help from a number of community partners. On Thursday, it posted 11 locations in Ellensburg and one in Cle Elum with free drive-up Wi-Fi access.

"Users are asked to practice social distancing by remaining in their cars during their visits to the hotspot areas," Ellensburg's announcement read.

Chelan County Public Utility District has outlined the grandest ambitions. PUD spokesman Neil Neroutsos said the first of potentially more than 50 Wi-Fi hotspots could go live sometime next week.

"We know we're not going to be able to hit every single part of the county, but we're trying to spread it out everywhere we can that makes sense where there is an interest," Neroutsos said Friday by telephone from Wenatchee. "We know there are a lot of students out there that may need internet access. There may be people who are filling out government forms and other things they need to get online to do."

The arrangement to pull off the project in Chelan County is slightly different than elsewhere in that Chelan PUD is providing free fiber broadband capacity, but leaving it to local internet service providers (ISPs) to set up the Wi-Fi base stations and manage access.

Separately, cable and internet giant Comcast announced toward the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak that it would open its Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspot network for everyone to use nationwide. In the Pacific Northwest, those hotspots are mostly located in business and retail districts along the Interstate 5 corridor, in tourist towns on the Pacific coastline and in the greater Spokane and Tri-Cities metro areas. Here's an interactive map of the many locations.

Some school districts are also working with the Washington Statewide Broadband Office to set up Wi-Fi hotspots that extend reliably outside the school walls where this is not in place already. An agency spokeswoman said the state is actively working to bring many more free public drive-in Wi-Fi hotspots to a broader range of communities.

Now retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.