Digital navigators wonder what's next
October 5, 2023
Story & photos by Brandon J. Simmons
In September of 2022, Steve Carson received the welcome news that his company, Computer Link NW, located on Third Street in Cathlamet, would receive nearly $300,000 in a grant intended to help new internet users, most of whom are low-income, connect to the internet, and receive basic services such as computer repair, or even new devices. For nine months, Computer Link NW distributed Chromebooks, made internet connections, and offered various kinds of tech support for dozens of Wahkiakum County residents and organizations. But just one year later, the State of Washington pivoted, and Computer Link NW's new grant proposal was rejected.
"I heard through the grapevine we didn't get awarded," said Carson.
The previous year the state had granted money to 17 organizations. This year it would grant larger awards to only three: Equity in Education Coalition, based in Seattle; the Seattle-based Community Health Network of Washington; and the Nisqually Indian Tribe, based in Olympia.
CLNW's grant-funded projects were wide ranging, including work with Wahkiakum School District, Port District Two, and with countless individual county residents and families.
Now, after a sustained surge in activity and constant work for his employees, Carson is concerned he may need to cut staff hours.
Still, despite his disappointment at not receiving this year's round of funding, Carson expressed misgivings about the way the program had been administered, and understands the need to streamline their efforts.
"They spend half of their money in the state bureaucracy," he said. "My feeling is this is way too much work dealing with like 17 different organizations for distributing this money, it would be so much easier if [they] just had a couple of them to deal with," he said.
According to Penny Thomas, the media relations manager for the Department of Commerce, the reason for the shift in funding is a shrunken budget and a desire for more efficiency.
"The consortium model is recognized as having the most effective and impactful outcomes," said Thomas. Those outcomes include one-on-one support, the grantees' ability to issue internet-capable devices, and to support subscription services like the federal Affordable Connectivity Program.
Still, the impact is likely to be felt in Wahkiukum County, where Carson was able to serve numerous residents in need of support and hardware directly. I asked Thomas whether the state has a plan for filling the gap left by the lack of funding, or even restoring that support.
"Commerce is requesting additional spending authority in the upcoming session. Those funds would allow us to make more awards for digital navigation services in communities statewide," she said. "Ultimately, we are trying to be as efficient as we can be with fewer resources."
Carson has an entrepreneurial impulse to connect people with technology. He and his wife, Lorraine, moved to Wahkiakum County in 2018, almost on a whim.
"We were camping at Vista Park. Our kids were out of the house. We were kind of at the point where we were [like] 'someday it'd be nice to move out of the big city.' We were thinking somewhere in the next five to ten years."
As they walked along the beach, they noticed a 'For Sale' sign on a house overlooking the Columbia River.
"We were like 'I wonder if we can make that work.'"
In the beginning, Carson continued commuting between Skamokawa and Vancouver, and working part-time from home.
"Doing computer stuff, website development, programming, and I.T. support," he said. "And then I realized that I was working really hard to go back and forth."
Things started to change when he realized he wasn't getting good internet, and that his options were limited. He saw that getting faster, more reliable internet likely meant becoming an internet service provider himself.
"It was like four grand to get started just to get the fiber to my house," he said. "And then $400 a month for internet." He figured that if he could share his connection with ten neighbors, possibly broadcast it to Vista Park, the Skamokowa Resort, the Duck Inn, the Fairgrounds, and other outlets, he might break even.
"I [could] get my internet for free, pay back my investment," he said.
The enterprise grew from there. Other neighbors asked Carson for the hookup, displeased with their CenturyLink or satellite service. After setting up the Port with their first high speed internet, other than CenturyLink, someone from Little Cape Horn heard about what he was doing and asked if Carson could do there what he had done in Skamokawa.
Carson saw an opportunity to connect Wahkiakum County.
Five years later, CLNW is Wahkiakum County's own homegrown tech hub, offering computer maintenance services, support with wifi, networking, web design and hosting. It also provides anyone free wifi for an hour at a time through Cathlamet Public Wifi.
It was a natural step, then, for Carson to apply for the state's Digital Navigator grant, resulting in $292,000 in funding to support new internet users, many of them in low-income rural and tribal areas, with new computers and help with connecting to the internet.
"I was like 'I think we might have a good chance at this,'" he said. "To be able to bring some dollars here to be able to help."
The grant turned CLNW into a hive of activity.
"We had people come through the door with all kinds of issues," he said.
Julia Wadlow, CLNW's office manager, concurred.
"These were my best friend," she said, holding up a box of Kleenex. Wadlow, who grew up in Norfolk, England, speaks with a crisp BBC accent, honed during her years living abroad with her military family.
The tissues were "something that many of my clients needed. Almost everybody that came in had hardship. Almost everybody that came in didn't have someone listen to them for a very long time. Many people that came in hadn't had someone turn round and say 'yes, we can help you. We can help you today.'"
"It was neat, with the grant, to be able to start doing more, being able to help some individuals," added Carson.
The work to apply for a large grant can be arduous. The team at CLNW spent weeks putting together a proposal, describing their track record, the services they'd already provided, and explaining how they'd spend the grant money.
"I think I had 17 letters of recommendation from [the] mayor, county commissioners, state representatives, people at the port, everybody I could grab," laughed Carson.
In the end, they were successful, and CLNW began applying the funds in a variety of ways. While Carson focused on institutional support, Wadlow was the face-to-face facilitator, engaging with individual members of the community, providing, it seemed, whatever they needed.
"For them, that was a very unusual experience," said Wadlow. "It was just almost shocking to them that somebody would be there to listen to what they need, affirm what they needed, and then provide it to them."
Terry Neckvatal, 71, lives in a trailer overlooking the Wahkiakum High School Athletic field. Neckvatal, who describes himself as "gypsy on both sides," received a free Chromebook, along with other technical support, from CLNW. He deals with symptoms related to traumatic brain and spinal injuries after a long and varied career as a crab fisherman, jackhammer operator, tree hauler, journeyman pipefitter, bouncer, and long-haul trucker, among other temporary professions.
"I was rode hard and put away wet," said Neckvatal, who lives with an impaired memory, and trembling hands. Before meeting Carson and Wadlow, Neckvatal couldn't check his email, and struggled to book doctor's appointments.
Now he can schedule his physical therapy sessions, and check MyCharts for his upcoming appointments and prescriptions. He is even able to enjoy some relaxing pastimes on his Chromebook. He likes documentaries. He likes listening to Van Morrison, and the blues.
"It was great, what they did," said Neckvatal.
Neckvatal is just one example of the impacts of the state grant.
Carson's team also donated $90,000 worth of computers and other hardware to Wahkiakum School District, helping them retire out-of-date machines.
They worked with Port District Two, providing cubicles and networking assistance to support the Port's ongoing project of creating a public hub for economic development at Vista Park.
Carson and his staff were able to remove spyware, malware, and viruses from an elderly resident's computer after she had fallen victim to telephone scammers. Over the course of several weeks, CLNW helped monitor the use of the resident's computer, removing potentially dangerous sites.
They helped address a lack of search and rescue equipment for the Sheriff's office, providing wide screen displays that produce optimum mapping imagery, creating a digital hot spot to increase communication connectivity in emergencies, as well as providing reusable notebooks that can be digitized and emailed in the field.
One of Carson and Walow's favorite stories is of one of their initial successes: helping a family in East Valley, Skamokawa. The family couldn't get cell coverage, or reliable internet.
"The husband had just been injured on the job so wasn't able to work," said Carson.
The family didn't actually know about the Digital Navigator funding.
"This was just 'can you help us get internet,'" he said. "So we went out the next day, hooked them up to internet, brought them a chrome book that we got configured for them because their only device they had in the house was their son's chromebook from school."
Now the family could schedule doctor's appointments and physical therapy.
"Everything to get him back on his feet so he could go back to work," said Carson.
He is proud of Computer Link's ability to help them.
"This family is back on their feet because we were able to just give them a little bit of assistance."
Thomas, of the Commerce Department, also praised Carson's work, highlighting CLNW's effective efforts to support the sheriff's office, the donation of Chromebooks to Wahkiakum School District, and his work on the Vista Park project.
"Computer Link NW...provided critical services for Wahkiakum County," she said. Steve Carson and his team collaborated to support and connect the community."
She left unanswered the question of how the Department of Commerce would provide the direct support that Carson and his team were able to provide to Wahkiakum residents now that the grant is over.
Carson, too, is uncertain about the future.
"I get people all the time come in the door and say, 'can you help me with XYZ?'" I had a lady just this week come in and say, 'Hey, my email's not working. I have a foster child that I need to fill out some paperwork to take care of where she's going next, and I can't do it. Can you help me?' and I said, 'Sure, I'll send my tech over to help you.'"
Later, before the tech began his work, the woman asked "How much is this going to cost me?"
The tech told her CLNW's standard rate.
"Oh, I can't afford that," she replied.
"It would have been so nice to just say 'Oh don't worry about it, it's covered.'
"We ended up doing it anyway. We got cookies out of the deal, so it was almost worth it," he said with a chuckle.
Then he added, "It was worth it."