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Some Pierce Transit public buses doubling as WiFi hotspots in rural areas

The pilot program is designed to give students free internet access for remote learning during the coronavirus.

SPANAWAY, Wash. — As part of a pilot program to extend internet access to people in rural areas with sparse broadband service, Pierce Transit is turning two buses into free WiFi hotspots. 

The pilot launched Thursday, April 23 and will continue through at least May 1.

“Our hope is that it becomes a real convenience for people,” said Pierce Transit spokesperson Rebecca Japhet. 

Japhet said the program was geared specifically toward Pierce County students who are learning remotely with schools shut down due to coronavirus restrictions.

“This is a really great way to help kids,” she said. “They really need the help at this time, and really kind of their only option is this online learning right now, so it’s important not to leave any of them behind.”

The buses are being stationed at two locations between the hours of 8 a.m. and 3 p.m.-- The Lakewood Towne Center behind Target and Barnes and Noble and at the Roy “Y” Park and Ride in Spanaway. Hot spot users have to park within 100 feet of the bus to connect to the WiFi.

Japhet acknowledged that the hotspots had been only minimally used in the first few days of service as Pierce Transit works to spread the word about the pilot.

At the park and ride in Spanaway, Anita Hays and her husband were parked next to the bus, using iPads to access the internet.

“We’ll be here every day,” said Hays. “Where we live at, we don’t have any [broadband] all.”

Hays said before coronavirus restrictions went into effect, she frequented the library once a week to access the internet. Since the libraries closed, she said she has been cut off from an important lifeline.

“That’s how I have to keep in touch with my doctor,” she said. “If I need any prescription refills or anything, I have to have internet access.”

Hays said her situation is not unlike most people living in rural Pierce County. 

A 2019 Pierce County broadband audit concluded that “basic economics keeps broadband out of many of the county’s rural areas.” The study put the pressure on county leaders “to decide that lack of broadband is more than a problem: it is a critical roadblock.”

But a year after the audit, Hays said she and her husband are still without broadband.

“We have lived there for 30 years and we’re still waiting for it,” said Hays.

Japhet said depending on how the pilot program goes, Pierce Transit is considering expanding it, potentially to areas like Tacoma.

“I’m going to come down here every day to support it so they’ll keep it going,” said Hays.