Aaron Wheeler Washington Broadband Director

When Aaron Wheeler, Washington state broadband office director, met with Telecompetitor for his first national media interview, he was smack dab in the middle of a challenge process for the $42.5 billion BEAD rural broadband funding program and on the advent of a recent BEAD Volume 2 initial proposal approval by NTIA.

When Wheeler joined the Washington state broadband office, he inherited a process and plans put in place by retiring broadband director Mark Vasconi, and he’s not about to slow the state’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) process down.

“The timeline was set in a well-structured way that I am not concerned about,” Wheeler explained.

While some states are more deliberate and trying to slow down the process of Volume 2 approval to delay the 365-day “shot clock” kicking in, Wheeler explains that in Washington, they’re “going to be at full speed all 2024 so we can finish as much of the process as possible and focus on shovels in the ground next year.” 

Although three different state agencies have been involved in broadband initiatives in the past, the Washington State  Broadband Office will be responsible for administering the BEAD program

CPF in the Rearview Mirror

Prior to Wheeler joining the state broadband office, Washington state had allocated its nearly $200 million in Capital Projects Fund (CPF) money to bring service to 33,000 unserved and underserved locations. The Washington State Broadband Office (WSBO) was awarded $122.7M and targeted to serve 15,677 unserved and underserved locations. The Public Works Board was awarded $43.7M and the Community Economic Revitalization Board was awarded $23.8M.

The $122.7 million for which WSBO was responsible was awarded in May 2023 to 19 projects throughout the state. The majority of the awardees executed their contracts in the last quarter of 2023 and four of the subrecipients have started construction.

Washington’s New Pilot

Wheeler comes to the state broadband office after nearly two decades serving in the IT department for the Suquamish tribe, serving in myriad roles, from helpdesk to running the IT department.

With an upbeat and positive nature, he recognizes that both the NTIA offices as well as individual state broadband offices are faced with “flying a plane while we build it.”

Wheeler explained that his prior role refocused his career on internet connectivity during the pandemic. Running the tribe’s IT department during the pandemic, he gained a new perspective on both the importance of and the alarming lack of internet connectivity.

“It really exposed me to broadband and helped me understand how important it was not only for the tribe, but everyone in the country. No one had the bandwidth they needed,” Wheeler said. “And the tribe wasn’t unique. While other states had already started to think about universal connectivity prior to 2020, COVID was a real wakeup call for our state.”

On the heels of leveraging CARES Act funding to set up 133 wireless access points for the tribe, Wheeler threw his hat in the ring when learning Director Vasconi was retiring.

“I honestly thought they would pick a retired-CEO type or someone with more policy experience than I had,” Wheeler said. “I was very interested, but didn’t think they would go my route because I’m more IT leader than business leader.”

Now, three months into the position, Wheeler said that his background is key to bridging the gap between bureaucrats that direct IT professionals to “do broadband” and the pragmatic reality of what that takes as he said he is “able to use my technical background to offer input on solutions. My background lets me understand the technology behind requests and understand how it will work or how it could better work.”

Bracing for BEAD

With more than 73,000 challenges filed, Washington is in the midst of a rebuttal phase until late June, with final determination on eligible BEAD locations slated for August 3.

The state has $1.2 billion to tackle approximately 157,000 unserved and 61,000 underserved broadband serviceable locations (BSLs). Wheeler said that project areas will be divided based largely around population and census blocks. Washington is aiming to have approximately 350 project areas with 1K BSLs in each.

“We want to make the areas appealing to bid on multiple areas or bite sized chunks,” Wheeler said. “I have a strong hope that we will get bids for each and every project area.”

More than merely hoping, the broadband office is actively working to ensure that all areas, even those in mountainous and/or heavily forested areas, have a bidder.

While Wheeler estimates that around 75% of Washington’s BEAD deployment will be fiber, he concedes that alternative technologies will be needed because, “…the benefit of internet for everyone is the most important thing as far as I am concerned. I’ve spoken to groups that are ready to bid on the more challenging areas with alternative technologies. When I put my tech hat on, I am excited to hear about creative solutions in these hard-to-reach areas.”

Still, Wheeler prioritizes fiber wherever possible as new AI and “smart” applications are increasingly placing demands on bandwidth that he believes only fiber will be able to meet.

Live Long & Prosper

A Washington native and a self-professed ‘trekkie,” Wheeler embraces this moment in time to deliver digital equity and connectivity to his state’s myriad different cultures. He quotes the creator of Star Trek, Gene Rodenberry as an inspiration to him for pointing out that, “We must strive to embrace our differences, for it is in our diversity that we find strength.”

More personally, Wheeler tells us that both he and his father have multiple sclerosis (MS) and while medication has helped stave off symptoms for Aaron, his father is wheelchair bound and relies heavily on his smart home and connected devices. Without robust connectivity, Wheeler’s father could not live on his own.

“I’m here to lend my knowledge, experience and my voice to make this state — my home — a little bit better,”  he said.  

The father of a toddler, Wheeler explains that creating a better Washington for his son is also a goal of his. “If I can do anything to help improve Washington as a place to live and thrive economically, that’s what I am here for. It’s important for me to provide this for him. It’s what motivates me when I get up early or answer emails in the middle of the night.”

More information about Washington broadband, including links to state funding resources, awards made and state specific Telecompetitor coverage can be found on the Broadband Nation webpage for the state.

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