Inslee visits San Juan and Skagit counties to discuss broadband

Gov. Jay Inslee stepped into a small room in a Friday Harbor hospital on Tuesday and faced a large, white screen as if he were going to stand and watch a movie. A Bellingham pediatrician wearing a headset popped onto the screen, introduced himself as Dr. Jim Bochsler and had a live conversation with the governor from 60 miles away.

It was the governor’s first telemedicine experience. But for hospital patients at the PeaceHealth Peace Island Medical Center, appointments like this could be part of the new normal.

What makes it possible is a strong, reliable internet connection.

First lady Trudi Inslee, Gov. Jay Inslee, Dr. Jim Bochsler (on screen), Merry-Ann Keane (the hospital’s chief administrative officer), and Beth Williams-Geiger (the hospital’s administrative director) take a photo in front of the telemedicine portal at PeaceHealth Peace Island Medical Center on Tuesday. Instead of taking a round trip, two-hour ferry ride to see a specific doctor, some patients can make a telemedicine appointment and talk to their doctor over a live screen. (Office of the Governor photo)

Improved medical access is just one way that rural communities will benefit because of the broadband bill that Inslee signed during this year’s session. Inslee visited Skagit County and San Juan County Tuesday to explore how increased broadband access could positively impact a community’s health care, economy, education and public safety interests.

The day-long broadband tour highlighted how rural communities across the state will benefit from the governor’s broadband bill. Inslee signed it into law earlier this month after the bill unanimously passed the Senate and left the House with one ‘no’ vote. Sens. Lisa Wellman and Tim Sheldon sponsored the 2019 bipartisan broadband bill, while Reps. Zack Hudgins and Mary Dye sponsored the companion bill.

Telemedicine through strong broadband access could change the world of medicine for rural communities across Washington: Instead of a patient taking a two-hour, round-trip ferry ride to the mainland in the middle of a work day, they could make a telemedicine appointment and talk to their doctor over a live screen.

Merry-Ann Keane, the hospital’s chief administrative officer, said the clinic sees about 20 patients a month just in their telepsychiatry program.

“Those things that take our island residents literally a full day or two to get access to care can be taken care of here with a brief telemedicine appointment,” Keane said.

While telemedicine use is still emerging, medical professionals have found the practice useful for patients who need behavioral health counseling, addiction therapy, cardiology, basic follow-up visits, help after a stroke or for parents who need to contact their pediatrician.

The governor stands with various broadband stakeholders after hearing from them during a meeting at Friday Harbor High School’s STEM center. (Office of the Governor photo)

After participating in the telemedicine demonstration, the governor attended three community broadband meetings in the area and talked with small business owners, city officials and various stakeholders about broadband connectivity, infrastructure and needs.

Inslee’s bill establishes a statewide broadband office and a grant and loan program that will help communities across the state construct and install broadband services.

“The digital divide should not limit any Washingtonian’s ability to learn, innovate or connect through robust internet access, whether it is students researching ideas at home, first responders handling an emergency or entrepreneurs launching a business,” Inslee said.

In the morning, Inslee spoke to dozens of stakeholders at the Friday Harbor High School’s STEM center. He asked for their input on what issues the upcoming Statewide Broadband Office needs on its radar.

Gov. Jay Inslee speaks to a group of broadband stakeholders in Friday Harbor on Tuesday. (Office of the Governor photo)

One business owner said he needs a strong Wi-Fi connection to maintain his credit card machine because customers don’t carry as much cash as they used to. Another attendee said Friday Harbor can’t grow economically without reliable internet access.

Rick Christmas, member of a non-profit utility called Orcas Power & Light Cooperative, said increased broadband service significantly impacts how first responders can do their jobs.

“It wasn’t always that way in the San Juan Islands that you could call 911 and someone would pick up,” Christmas said. “This will make our lives better every day.”

The governor also attended a broadband city meeting in Anacortes that explored how the city will install broadband fiber by running it through some of the city’s water pipes. This network could lower internet costs and meet a variety of small business and education needs across the community. Anacortes Mayor Laurie Gere, Sens. Lisa Wellman and Liz Lovelett, Rep. Debra Lekanoff and about a dozen of stakeholders participated in the discussion.

Anacortes City Public Works Director Fred Buckenmeyer shows Gov. Jay Inslee how the city plans to install broadband fiber by running it through some of the city’s main water lines. Inslee attended a broadband meeting at Anacortes City Hall on Tuesday and heard from a variety of stakeholders about their broadband needs. (Office of the Governor photo)

During the last meeting in Burlington, Inslee heard from community leaders about how they’ve worked to create a countywide hub for broadband service. Patsy Martin, executive director at the Port of Skagit, said several business park tenants came to her 14 years ago saying the dialup they used was too slow and expensive.

“They said, ‘We can’t survive like this — you have to fix it,’” Martin said.

So, they partnered with a variety of groups over the years to create what the port is capable of today. The port hosts a fiber project area for broadband infrastructure, an area that Martin hopes continues to grow based on a demand that is already there.

Martin said the Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County has spent a lot of time trying to meet broadband needs for aerospace, agriculture and maritime industries. She said the small business model is truly what makes Skagit County work. And most, if not all, small businesses need broadband just to operate. For example, it takes a lot of bandwidth for an architectural firm or aerospace company to send engineering drawings back and forth, she said.

The governor stands with various broadband stakeholders after hearing from them during a meeting at Anacortes City Hall. (Office of the Governor photo)

Broadband also helps run high-tech farming equipment in the agricultural world of Skagit County, specifically equipment that turns grains into malt.

“The areas where we’ve had broadband has helped us attract businesses,” Martin said. “Many of them are at the business park because broadband is there. For example, in Concrete, they have a harder time because they don’t have it.”

Concrete Mayor Jason Miller attended the Port of Skagit discussion and said broadband is an absolutely critical component when it comes to revitalizing Concrete’s economy.

“We have people coming into town steadily looking for a place to set up shop and that’s always a question that comes up around here,” Miller said.

Port of Skagit Executive Director Patsy Martin looks on as Skagit County Commissioner Lisa Janicki (in the pink blazer) speaks to Gov. Jay Inslee about broadband needs in Skagit County.

Establishing stronger broadband service is a component on the town’s current economic development plan, which means the town structures a lot of things around that goal.

Skagit County Commissioner Lisa Janicki said a statewide office dedicated to broadband could also help provide a map to customers that shows internet speeds across the state.

The future Statewide Broadband Office will serve as the central place to plan and coordinate public and private efforts to expand broadband access across the state. It will also act as a hub for information about state and federal broadband programs, set high-level statewide broadband policy, spur private investment in projects and build capacity at the local level.

Gov. Jay Inslee peers into an on-site broadband vault at the Port of Skagit in Burlington. (Office of the Governor photo)

Capital funding in the budget will establish a competitive broadband grant and loan program. The Public Works Board will distribute these funds to applicants. The funds will go toward the acquisition, installation and construction of infrastructure to deliver broadband services.

The funds will go toward promoting access to broadband services in unserved areas. The board may also award funding for feasibility studies to determine if a project is possible, and strategic planning for establishing broadband service in unserved and underserved areas.