Broadband Penetration in the Walla Walla Metro Lags

By Dr. Patrick Jones

Over 90% of households in the Walla Walla metro area were estimated to have some internet connection in 2022. Yet, estimated broadband connectivity last year was much lower, at 76%. (The Walla Walla metro area, or MSA, consists of Columbia and Walla Walla Counties).

According to Census, two sources – cellular and satellite, but especially cellular – make up the difference between the levels of internet connectivity.

Since 2016, the number of households in the MSA without any connection to the internet has fallen by about 1,800, out of current total of all households of approximately 23,400. This is a statistically significant change. Yet the change in households with broadband advanced by only 540 by 2022. The increase is small enough that, statistically, there is no difference between the two years.

Further, broad penetration here is slightly below eastern Washington metros. The greater Wenatchee area shows the highest rate in 2022, at 79%, followed by Spokane County, followed by the greater Tri Cities, at 77%. For the state as a whole, as indicator 0.3.3  reveals, the rate is considerably higher, at 81%. The rate in the Walla Walla metro area, however, is statistically not different from that of the U.S.

The reasons behind the relatively low broadband level are not entirely clear and are likely many. There is no PUD in the two counties, as in some parts of central Washington, that has adopted a broadband rollout as part of its service mix. Second, the two counties are the smallest among Eastern Washington metros, and providers are likely to concentrate on more densely populated counties.  Third, income matters. While the median household income of the Walla Walla metro area is higher than Spokane’s, it is considerably lower than incomes in the Tri Cities and Wenatchee areas.

The consequences of low broadband penetration should be apparent, however. As we learned during the pandemic, students with broadband can hardly be expected to handle distance learning. Doing assignments on a cellphone isn’t quite the same as on a desktop or laptop with moderately fast connections.

Another consequence is the impact on working from home (WFH). This is obviously hard to do with narrow bandwidth. These numbers and share are reflected in Census estimates of “alternative commute to work.” In 2022, an estimated 11.5% of workers/commuters identified as working from home. (The measure does not – yet- appear in the Trends.) This share was far lower than in Spokane, although about the same as in the Tri Cities and the greater Wenatchee area.

The share of the eastern Washington workforce engaged in agriculture outside of Spokane is, of course, much higher. Consequently, some of Spokane’s higher WFH rate can be explained by the type of jobs. One can’t expect communities with large agricultural workforces to show high WFH rates. Compared to the Tri Cities and Wenatchee, however, Walla Walla’s agricultural share is considerably lower.

If Walla Walla is to succeed in encouraging virtual workers to move here, increasing broadband penetration will be a must. And let us hope that another pandemic doesn’t land on our doorstep and penalize those students whose families who still don’t have broadband.