Lawmakers look back to the future for rural broadband access in Washington state

Lawmakers look back to the future for rural broadband access in Washington state
State lawmakers are looking again at legislation introduced earlier this year as a way to encourage greater rural broadband access. At a public hearing of the Senate Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee, the discussion primarily focused on a provision mandating that cities adopt an ordinance regarding the installation of small cell facilities necessary for 5th Generation (5G) technology. Photo: www.jetspot.in/

State lawmakers are renewing the push for greater rural broadband access in Washington communities. Proponents of a Senate bill introduced during this year’s session are pushing it again in the hopes it can encourage extending access into more communities.

The public hearing is the latest in a statewide conversation about how to improve service for the half a million Washingtonians with only one provider available. Also, just one-third of residents have access to fiber-optic service.

The legislation received a mixed response at a public hearing of the Senate Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee from local government representatives concerned about preemption of municipal permitting authority, an issue that has been raised about other broadband-related legislation attempting to encourage greater Internet access.

Cities handle permitting for the use of local poles, which includes broadband services and the installation of small cell facilities necessary for 5th generation (5G) mobile networks technology. This technology is expected to create three million new jobs and increase the nation’s annual GDP by $500 billion; Steve Forbes of Forbes Magazine has described 5G as the nation’s greatest infrastructure project since the interstate highway system.

“To me this bill is really about infrastructure,” Vice Chair Tim Sheldon (D-35) said at the November 14 hearing. He is the primary sponsor of SB 5935, with newly-appointed Chair Sen. Reuven Carlyle (D-36) cosponsoring.

SB 5935 was introduced in May but at the time failed to land a public hearing. Two other bills introduced last session – HB 1921 and SB 5711 – also failed to clear the legislature.

With this bill “our kids can compete, our businesses can compete,” Sheldon said. “We can work where we live, live where we work, stay off I-5, all those good things.”

If passed, SB 5935 would do the following:

  • Mandate that cities pass an ordinance for issuing master permits for siting and installing small cell facilities. The bill language outlines various requirements and restrictions that must be included in the ordinance. Cities with populations over 20,000 must pass the ordinance within nine months of the law’s effective date (three months after its passage). Cities with 5,000 and 20,000 residents must adopt the ordinance within a year;
  • Set up a Broadband Taskforce that reviews current broadband policies and public/private investments;
  • Creates a broadband deployment partnership initiative;
  • Extend the state Universal Service Fund established by the Federal Communications Commission until 2021; and
  • Allow rural port districts to obtain and run telecommunications facilities within and outside of its district and provide wholesale telecommunications services within its limits.

The state has 75 port districts in 33 of its 39 counties that are allowed to build telecom infrastructure and use unlit (dark) optical fiber for their own use or to provide wholesale telecom services, but they cannot provide telecom services to private customers.

Earlier this year, Microsoft published a white paper outlining its intent to bring broadband to two million people nationwide via its Rural Airband Initiative. Over two-thirds of them will be reached through the use of TV white spaces, i.e. unused broadcasting frequencies.

“There’s no question that comprehensive broadband strategy and system of access and affordability is a central policy goal,” Carlyle said. “We know that it’s central to rural economic development. I think that we need to very sincerely ask all of the stakeholders to choose to come to the table in very meaningful ways. We’d like to send a signal that we are committed to this.”

However, concerns were raised by Government Relations Advocate Victoria Lincoln with the Association of Washington Cities (AWC) regarding the section of the bill requiring cities to adopt a small cell facility ordinance by a certain date. The association represents 281 Washington cities and towns.

Although AWC isn’t opposed to the bill, “our preference would be no bill at all that requires these cities to do all of these things,” she said. “It’s very hard to take all of our communities and put them into one box.

“It’s important to remember that cities spend millions of dollars acquiring, expanding and upgrading the rights of way,” she added. “There are many users they have to look out for, not just this industry but there are vehicles and bike traffic, foot traffic utilities of all sorts…City oversight of these networks is very necessary in order to manage all of those users….”

A similar opinion was offered by Briahna Murray, a local government lobbyist with Gordon Thomas Honeywell Governmental Affairs.

“The deployment of rural broadband is very much disconnected from the deployment of small cell network facilities,” she said. “You’re really talking about two different types of technology and two different types of communities.”

Rather than require a municipal ordinance, Murray suggested public-private partnerships such as one under consideration by the city of Pasco to partner with a real estate company and technology company.

“From a regulatory standpoint, they can work with those carriers to identify the location and aesthetics of this entire grid,” she said.

Other programs include Mason County Public Utilities’ “Fiberhood” that approves fiber construction in neighborhoods once 75 percent of residences request it.

The objections to the bill due to preemption of city authority prompted a question to Lincoln from panel member Sen. Kevin Ranker (D-40). “How many cities are still outliers and not moving (small cell facilities) ordinances right now, and is there actually an objection to that, or are they just slowly getting there?”

Lincoln said they’re not sure, but “it does take a lot of work to get something done in less than a year.”

Later during the hearing, Lincoln said: “It’s going to take a lot of money to bring broadband to our most rural areas and many of our cities and towns out there. Absent a big pot of money dropping out of the sky on this, it’s going to take partnership – public partnerships, private partnerships, groups working together in those area to try and address this. And maybe there is statewide policy that could help… but I think it’s going to take a lot of entities working on that.”

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