Bringing broadband education to Grant County
Grant County Public Utility District No. 2 (Grant PUD) has built a substantial fiber network throughout the county. Through their research, they identified areas where that investment is underutilized, and designed programs to educate the community on the existence and benefits of the existing infrastructure. This education will increase usage and maximize the impact on the community.
Driving technology awareness
The Microsoft datacenter team and TechSpark partnered with Grant County PUD (Grant PUD) to design and fabricate a mobile technology van, the Illuminator, to expand broadband and technology awareness among the residents and students of central Washington state. The project was awarded funds with the initial goal of using the equipment to educate the underserved in the community by demonstrating hands-on broadband capabilities in the areas where those capabilities are underutilized. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of broadband access was underscored. “COVID has made it clear the internet is an essential utility for schooling and working from home. I think we jumped ahead in that need 10 years,” explains Annette Lovitt, Community Relations Coordinator and Public Affairs Officer for GCPUD. And while early goals to attend STEM events were complicated due to COVID-19, GCPUD pivoted in order to still engage with the community safely and effectively.
Maximizing community outreach
Due to the rural nature of the county and other socio-economic factors, transportation is often a challenge, and centralizing educational programs would mean failing to reach the people who need them most. Instead, a strategy was devised to take the technology to the community with the mobile capability the Illuminator van will deliver. The van is designed with several technology tools, such as mobile broadband connectivity, solar power, on-board power generation, computer docking stations, outdoor speakers, and mounted LED displays. “It’s a great tool for us to reach more remote areas,” says Lovitt.
As of 2010, Grant County averaged 33 residents per square mile, so focusing on areas where the community congregates for events will maximize reach. To make the greatest impact, the mobile technology van was brought to the Grant County Fair which had tens of thousands of attendees. A hands-free virtual reality program was available to kids of all ages in both English and Spanish to help them learn about hydropower and how it’s generated; the event received great feedback from adults and children alike.
The van will also be used at any of the dozens of community events that take place each year; outreach events at popular local spots such as grocery stores or other public locations; and Hydro STEM Academy and other school events.
Sharing the benefits with other regional organizations
Using monitors on rolling platform, GCPUD can easily hit the road and conduct events outdoors. Every year, the region experiences fatalities due to electricity, and first responders must know how to navigate these dangerous situations. Five nearby law enforcement agencies have benefitted from the Illuminator, with over 100 first responders being trained by GCPUD in safety around live wires and emergency preparedness.
The Illuminator will continue to be made available to other organizations in the community like Chelan County PUD, Douglas PUD, and Okanogan PUD as well as multiple Education Service Districts. GCPUD will continue to use the van for educational outreach to help its customers and the public understand electrical generation and safety, how broadband telecommunications function over a fiber-optic network, and the importance of good environmental stewardship. The van can also be used in a myriad of ways in the community, such as: disaster response communications to keep the community informed during times of threat; broadband roadshows that market existing GCPUD broadband capabilities and increase adoption by onboarding new customers in real time; and technology roadshows that educate the community regarding technology programs applicable to greater central Washington State.
“It’s a great tool for us to reach more remote areas.”Annette Lovitt, Community Relations Coordinator and Public Affairs Officer for GCPUD