In a world of ‘remote everything,’ Washington state sees new push for public broadband networks

Bill Mount

GeekWire Photo Illustration / Canva Pro A bill that would give local governments and public agencies the ability to offer retail internet services appears headed to a floor vote in the Washington state House of Representatives. Under current state law, public utility districts and port districts are allowed to build […]

GeekWire Photo Illustration / Canva Pro

A bill that would give local governments and public agencies the ability to offer retail internet services appears headed to a floor vote in the Washington state House of Representatives.

Under current state law, public utility districts and port districts are allowed to build broadband networks and provide wholesale internet service to private telecom companies, who provide retail connectivity to homes, schools and businesses. The public agencies are banned from providing direct service to customers.

Rep. Drew Hansen

The bill – House Bill 1336 – would lift those restrictions and allow ports, PUDs and Native American tribal governments to partner with cities and counties to provide internet service directly to consumers. The bill’s prime sponsors are Reps. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, and Alex Ybarra, R-Quincy. The committee held a public hearing via video conference Wednesday.

“The last year has caused everyone to realize that high-speed broadband internet access is not some optional add-on, but a basic requirement of modern life,” Hansen said during the hearing. “We rely on the internet for remote school, remote work, remote doctors’ appointments – remote everything.”

Hansen described Washington as one of a minority of states that restrict the ability of governments and agencies to offer internet services directly to the public. States without such restrictions have lower internet costs and faster speeds on average, he said, asserting that it’s “long past time” to lift the restrictions.

Even though Seattle is a global tech hub, there are areas across the state that have no internet access at all, Hansen said, and even in places that do have access, “that doesn’t mean it’s reliable; that doesn’t mean it’s affordable.”

For Ybarra, a longtime member of the Quincy school board, the bill would provide much-needed internet access to underserved communities. “Whatever the vehicle it takes to get broadband to our kids, that’s what we need to do,” he said. “We need internet for them right now.”

A handful of telecom industry representatives testified against the bill, saying it didn’t do enough to protect the $2 billion a year private companies invest statewide to expand internet access.

“Over-build by PUDs could easily crush private investment,” said Gail Long, state government affairs manager for TDS Telecom in rural southwest Washington.

The bill should restrict public broadband projects to areas that have no access now, said Betty Buckley, the executive director of the Washington Independent Telecommunications Association. “We just believe it’s better to focus on those areas that really need help.”

But the majority of the testimony favored the bill, with most speakers saying that internet access is an essential utility like water or sewer service that governments should provide. Several compared access to the internet with access to electrical power nearly a century ago, when Washington began allowing publicly owned electric utilities to provide service to underserved communities when private companies wouldn’t.

“If it ever made sense for the private sector to serve these areas, if there was a profit to be made, we all know they would have gone and made that profit by now,” Port of Chehalis CEO Randy Mueller said.

The bill “represents a critical policy shift that will address economic issues, education issues, health care issues and, importantly, equity issues,” said Washington Public Ports Association Executive Director James Thompson. “If ever there were an equity issue to come before this committee, access to broadband is one of them.”

The House Community and Economic Development Committee is scheduled to take up the bill in an executive session set for 8:30 a.m. Feb. 5. “I have every intention of moving this bill out of committee,” said Rep. Cindy Ryu, D-Shoreline, the chairwoman of the Community and Economic Development Committee.

Those watching the issue closely include Jesús Segura, who works in IT and large data systems in Seattle, and contacted GeekWire independently this week about the bill. He lived in rural Moxee, Wash., as a child and has family members there who struggle with minimal internet bandwidth for school and other critical activities. He wrote via email, “I hope this bill will allow more communities to invest in data infrastructures for themselves rather than waiting on others to find economic viability in their system.”

During the hearing, in several cases problems with the video and audio feeds into the hearing made the points more pointedly than the speakers could with their words.

An Island County commissioner and a mother of an autistic child in rural Spokane County both said they had to drive from their homes to a spot where they could get a wifi signal in order to testify online. Several presenters from rural areas had buffering issues that caused their video to freeze or audio to lag; one said her family’s DSL line only has enough bandwidth for one video conference at a time, so she was leaving the call to let her son attend his online classes.

Valley View Health Center CEO Gaelon Spradley said he learned about the hearing when he checked his phone during a recent internet outage that impacted his network of 13 Lewis County clinics. After 90 minutes without access to online medical records and billing, they started cancelling appointments and were nearing the point of deciding whether to send staff home for the day.

But his phone still was receiving messages, which is how he spotted an invitation to testify at the hearing, Spradley said. “I eagerly said, ‘yes.’ ”

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