Senate approves rural broadband pilot program

Senate approves rural broadband pilot program
Senate lawmakers overwhelming approved ESSB 6034, a bill that allows Kitsap Public Utility District to provide high-speed internet for customers that currently lack broadband service. The legislation is part of a larger push for full broadband deployment statewide. Photo: stream.org

Senate lawmakers overwhelming approved legislation on Monday that supporters hope will create further momentum for full high-speed internet deployment in Washington state.

ESSB 6034 creates a pilot program between the Kitsap Public Utility District (PUD) and private telecommunication companies to extend broadband access to the county’s rural communities.

“This bill has been years in the works,” prime sponsor Sen. Christine Rofles (D-23) told colleagues February 12 on the Senate floor. “The issue of access to high speed internet is one that has been identified across the nation as an impediment to rural economic development — and even in this case suburban economic development.”

Her district includes Bainbridge Island and parts of the Kitsap Peninsula. Under ESSB 6034 , a PUD that only provides sewer, water and telecom services in a county with area less than 500 square miles and located west of Puget Sound may provide end-user internet services on its broadband network if it receives a petition from customers requesting it. The PUD is authorized, but not required, to hold several meetings to determine if there is sufficient demand for the internet services. The bill uniquely applies to Kitsap PUD because it does not provide electrical services. Thus, the issue over pole attachments plaguing other parts of the state also lacking high-speed internet is moot.

An amendment proposed by Rofles and approved on the Senate floor allows companies regulated under the state Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) to choose the UTC for resolving disputes over adequate internet service.

“It should be cost effective, it should be efficient,” Rofles said. “It has been worked out with the local cable companies and the PUDs and the citizens of the county, many of whom are looking forward to receiving high-speed internet in their homes.”

One of the cosponsors is Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-35), who also represents parts of Kitsap. “We have to do as much as we can, we’re getting started, but this has to be the year we have a real broad look at a comprehensive bill that helps telecommunications deploy statewide.”

Other bills introduced this session aimed at improving rural broadband include HB 2749. However, the legislation failed to clear its home committee by the cutoff date after a January 23 public hearing.

On the cusp of approval in the Senate is SB 5935, sponsored by Sheldon and Sen. Reuven Carlyle (D-36). That bill aims, in part, to address controversy over the use of local poles. Introduced last year, it received a November public hearing and was reintroduced this session. It is now awaiting a Senate floor vote after clearing Ways and Means.

Microsoft last year announced plans to bring broadband to two million people nationwide via its Rural Airband Initiative, mostly through the use of TV white spaces. In the meantime, many parts of rural Washington still lack adequate internet service.

ESSB 6034 cosponsor Sen. Jan Angel (R-26) told colleagues: “It’s so bad…in our rural area of Kitsap County that our students have to go to the mall to an internet connection room just to be able to do some homework, because they can’t get service in any of their homes.”

ESSB 6034’s companion bill is HB 2662, sponsored by Rep. Drew Hansen (D-23). The bill received a January 30 public hearing but did not clear the Committee on Technology & Economic Development before the cutoff date.

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