For those forced to work, study, seek unemployment or search for jobs remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic but not equipped with wifi at home, the state is working to ensure nearby hot spots are available.

Already, about 300 libraries across the state, including at least four in Skagit County, offer wifi to the public.

In the midst of the pandemic, some of those libraries have expanded the service to 24-hour availability and to reaching outside their buildings. Some have lifted password protection, enabling anyone to connect.

"Libraries are such a spot where people come in and use the internet that don't have it available at home," said Janice Burwash of the Burlington Public Library, which moved from offering a 16-hour, password-protected service to a round-the-clock, password-free connection when the library closed its doors to protect public health.

"We knew that as people in the community, especially children, were at home now and not able to be at school or whatever, they would need wifi and we wanted to be able to offer it."

The library and other locations where the city of Burlington offers free wifi are seeing use.

Burwash said a library staff member saw several cars parked in the library lot recently to take advantage of the service, and the city IT department logged 291 people using another site during a 24-hour period.

The state Broadband Office and state Department of Commerce held a teleconference Thursday to discuss an expansion of wifi availability in partnership with Washington State University extensions, Microsoft and other organizations.

While no new sites have been established yet in Skagit County, that could change if the state determines there's a need.

"We are entertaining new sites based on gaps and economic need," State Broadband Office Director Russ Elliott told the Skagit Valley Herald.

Local libraries that have offered wifi for years said the need has always been clear, and filling it is increasingly important due to the impacts of COVID-19.

"A lot of our patrons in this area don't have access to internet, either because of cost or the fact that the internet just doesn't reach as far out as they live," Upper Skagit Library Program Associate Chazlyn Lovely said. "In the era of COVID-19, this service is especially important for parents and students grappling with online learning."

The statewide effort, called the Drive-In WiFi Hotspots project, has added about 150 sites across the state and aims to add 150 more.

Elliott said although being established as part of an emergency project in response to COVID-19, the plan is to leave the sites in place long term.

"The equipment that is being installed at these sites is being donated. It does not have to be given back when this is over, so it will be up to the owners of the sites how to manage that or keep it running," he said.

As more sites are added, they will be listed at driveinwifi.wa.gov.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, Facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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