A pair of bills seeking to expand broadband access in Washington state went into effect on July 25.
The bills, HB 1336 and SB 5383, will allow not-for-profit, community-owned public utility districts (PUD), ports, and counties to provide retail broadband service directly to customers. Under previous legislation enacted in 2000, PUDs have been able to build out the infrastructure for broadband internet, but were required to let private internet service providers deliver service.
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Since then, PUDs have invested more than $509 million into broadband infrastructure across the state, according to a press release from the Washington Public Utility Districts Association. With that authority, they were able to build internet pipelines to connect communities. But if customers didn’t have a private internet company that was interested in providing service, their options were limited or non-existent, even with the infrastructure in place.
The Washington Public Utility Districts Association comprises 27 PUDs across Washington state, and 15 currently provide wholesale telecommunications services.
Rep. Drew Hansen (D-23rd Legislative District) was a prime sponsor of HB 1336, which he views as fixing the previous legislation which barred not-for-profit entities from directly providing internet to customers.
“We just think local communities should have the choice about whether they want their county or PUD or port to offer broadband, and if they want it, they should be able to put together a plan and get it.”
Cities in Washington state are already allowed to provide municipal broadband, although Anacortes is the only one which has created its own service provider with Access Anacortes Fiber Internet.
Hansen said the bills aren’t just for rural areas, which may not be profitable enough for private internet companies to do business in, but also for underserved urban areas with reduced competition and high prices.
The bills are also an acknowledgement that broadband internet is a necessity in the 21st century, said George Caan, executive director for the Washington Public Utility Districts Association. The COVID-19 pandemic, which saw masses of employees working from home and children learning remotely, illustrated that broadband internet is an essential utility like electricity or water.
“The pandemic ended that argument for good,” he said.
While public entities will be able to provide service directly, Caan said the goal is to develop a robust public-private partnership using grant dollars to build infrastructure and attract a rush of internet service providers competing to provide service.
There’s historical precedent for similar models too. The PUD movement originated in the 1920s and 30s and focused on electricity service.
At the time, only about 12% of farms in rural parts of Washington state had access to electricity. Even if there was power, it was often too expensive to meaningfully use, said Liz Anderson, deputy executive director for the Washington Public Utility Districts Association. Those PUDs were able to increase service and bring costs down.
While the pair of bills expands public options for retail broadband, funding to build infrastructure is still an important part of the equation, Caan said.
The federal government often requires telecommunication grant applicants to also deliver service to customers in order to receive funding, Caan said. The pair of bills will make it easier for PUDs to access this funding. These dollars will be especially important to provide service for underserved communities. Even if the infrastructure is built, if it’s too expensive to provide service, the model doesn’t work.
In areas that have one or two internet service providers, the bills could help drive down prices. But even still, Caan said they’re looking at ways to provide quality broadband to low-income communities.
It’s an issue that Hansen has been thinking about, too.
“Affordability is an equity issue, and it doesn’t do people much good if they theoretically are served but they can’t afford their broadband.”
It’s an issue that Caan struggles with too, and one which provides no easy answers. Still, he said the bills, which have been 20 years in the making, are a step in the right direction.
Washington state has a goal of providing access to broadband internet with 150 Mbps download and upload speeds by 2028.
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