In 2015, half a million Washington state residents lacked access to a broadband-speed Internet connection, according to the Broadband Now project. State lawmakers want to improve that accessibility to rural communities, where improved connections is often intertwined with economic development. Last month, the state Senate overwhelmingly passed ESSB 5679, a bipartisan bill that would allow rural ports to enter public-private partnerships with telecom companies to provide broadband infrastructure and services to communities outside of their taxing district. Proponents say the move would help Internet service providers add customers currently out of their reach due to insufficient return of investment.
Senate Bill Faces Skepticism In State House
Although the bill passed the Senate with only one dissenting vote, it came under heavy scrutiny at a March 16 public hearing of the House Committee on Technology and Economic Development. Top ranking committee members skeptical of the bill said it lacked clarity about its purpose and might result in ports requesting state subsidies to pay for the infrastructure. However, statements by bill sponsors and others indicated they are open to amendments enabling the legislation to advance.
Washington has 75 port districts in 33 of its 39 counties. Under a state law passed in 2000, rural ports can build telecom infrastructure, and use unlit (dark) optical fiber for their own use or to provide wholesale telecom services. However, they are prohibited from offering telecom services to end users, or private customers.
ESSB 5679 would allow rural ports and ports in counties with less than 700,000 people to extend their telecom infrastructure outside their taxing district. The services would be provided to customers through an exclusive contract with a private telecom company operating the telcom facilities.
The bill is sponsored by Majority Caucus Vice Chair Sen. Judy Warnick (R-13) and cosponsored by Democratic Caucus Vice Chair Sen. Lisa Wellman (D-41). Other cosponsors include State Sens. Tim Sheldon (D-35), Ann Rivers (R-18), Lynda Wilson (R-17), Annette Cleveland (D-49), Majority Assistant Whip Maureen Walsh (R-16), Dean Takko (D-19), and Christine Rolfes (D-23). Its companion bill, HB 1702 received a February 7 public hearing of the House Committee on Technology and Economic Development, but did not advance. That bill was sponsored by State Rep. Mary Dye (R-9).
How To Improve Rural Broadband Access
Testifying at the public hearing, Wellman told committee members “It’s a vast concern to me that while we have a digital infrastructure certainly in our urban and suburban areas…many kids in our rural communities don’t have access to that technology…and that troubles me a great deal.”
The public-private partnership authorized by ESSB 5679 is necessary because “the service providers generally go where the action is, where the money is…where it’s easy to provide action,” she added. “Ports have been leading examples of private public partnership. I know that they can get the job done.”
Dye: Bill A “Model For Risk-Sharing”
Dye voiced similar views, calling the bill “a model for risk-sharing…that will provide certainty for both the ports, who have to absorb a longer return on investment than what telecoms could afford” and will “build fiber in places where nobody else will.”
“Rural communities…need the same kind of service and options that are available at the same prices in urban communities,” she said. “This bill creates more opportunities for private companies to provide (those) services. The end of the gravel road will be people served with good broadband.”
Some committee members such as Majority Floor Leader Rep. Gael Tarleton (D-36) were also supportive. She is a cosponsor of HB 1702 and served as a Port of Seattle commissioner for five years.
“I deeply believe in the poor districts to advance the economic opportunities of all the people in their district,” she said.
Other testifiers such as Amber Carter called it “a rural economy jobs bill.” She is a lobbyist for the Port of Vancouver and Identity Clark County.
“Broadband capacity is the great equalizer between the urban and rural areas in our state,” she said.
Connecting Broadband Access and Economic Development
Brent Grening is the CEO for the Port Ridgefield, located in southwest Washington north of Vancouver. He told the committee that the bill “would be good for our constituents and constituents across the state, because broadband deployment is a high priority for many of these areas. For us, without it, we cannot build a state of the art economy without state of the art infrastructure.”
“We are looking to build infrastructure,” he added. “We’re not looking to be in the retail game. We want to simply build the infrastructure and then work with private partners.”
However, other industry leaders such as Betty Buckley said the inclusion of “exclusive” in the bill when referring to the public-private partnerships “make the hair on the back of my neck stand up.” She is the Executive Director for the Washington Independent Telecommunication Association.
“The bill also has a number of other loose ends that we would like to see tied up and defined,” she said.
Apprehensions Persist Over Bill Language
The meeting was chock full of questions by committee members such as Chair Rep. Jeff Morris (D-40) who were less enthusiastic about the legislation. He told the sponsors that he is “concerned with bills that don’t have a lot of definitions.” Although “wholesale telecommunication services” is defined in state law, “telecommunication services” that would be provided to end users is not. The bill also doesn’t specify limitations as to how far a port district could extend their telecom infrastructure outside their jurisdiction.
Assistant Ranking Minority Member Rep. Richard DeBolt (R-20) said, “We’ve seen in the past bills that have intention, which I think are honorable and logical, to maybe serve an underserved community, and then somehow doesn’t do that.”
He also expressed concern that infrastructure might be built, but no telecom company will offer service, and ports will turn to the state’s capital budget to subsidize the construction costs.
“Doesn’t this bill open up to abuse of those ports in those areas to build out to where maybe they shouldn’t be building out?” he asked.
Warnick said “we are open to protecting that from happening. I would just like to see it (the bill) get through so we can start the conversations.”