State lawmakers and the telecom industry are renewing their efforts to expand internet access in Washington after several bills introduced this session failed to clear the legislature. Last month, Microsoft announced its plan to provide broadband internet to rural parts of the nation. The move could aid the state’s agricultural industry, which is increasingly utilizing the technology, and aid economic development in counties with disproportionate unemployment rates.
Dovetailing off Microsoft’s announcement was a Aug. 16 rural broadband roundtable discussion hosted by Issaquah-based Pacific Technology on how to reach the roughly 400,000 state residents who lack access to broadband. Among the attendees were Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-5) and Rep. Mary Dye (R-9).
Dye was the primary sponsor of HB 1702, a bill she introduced this session that would have allowed rural ports to create public-private partnerships with telecom companies for the purpose of building broadband infrastructure and outside of their taxing district. The bill failed to get out of the House Committee on Technology and Economic Development after a public hearing.
She told Lens that the state can’t wait any longer to expand internet access. “The reality is that many of the telecoms told us that there is a lot of congestion right now, and so we need to build a bigger pipe and more infrastructure.”
Another bill introduced this session by Sen. Doug Erickson (R-42) would have removed barriers to the installation of 5th generation (5G) networks via small cell facilities on local poles. It received a “do pass” recommendation from the Senate Committee on Energy, Environment & Telecommunications, but got stuck in Rules.
“Everybody was disappointed that they (bills) failed to get through at all this session,” Dye said. “When 5G comes out, it doesn’t just magically come to your cell phone. We’re already bumping up against capacity.”
Dye’s district includes Whitman County, which has 68 percent broadband coverage. Counties such as King have 98.6 percent coverage. Overall, Washington is the 12th most connected state, according to the Broadband Now project, with 205 broadband providers. Over half a million residents have only one provider available in their area, and just under a third of Washingtonians have access to fiber-optic service.
The connection between broadband and economic development has been noted by organizations such as Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s MuniNetworks project, which writes:
These networks improve the productivity of existing businesses and attract new businesses to communities, allow individuals to work from home more effectively, support advanced healthcare and security systems, strengthen local housing markets, and represent long term social investments in the form of better-connected schools and libraries. They also create millions of dollars in savings that can be reinvested into local economies.
A 2016 report by Michael at MingesictData.org also found positive economic growth in “almost every study” of expanded broadband access, though the impact varied depending on the country.
Microsoft’s white paper released in July outlined its intent to bring broadband to two million people nationwide via its Rural Airband Initiative. Around 80 percent of them will be reached through the use of TV white spaces, which are unused broadcasting frequencies.
This could aid another endeavor Microsoft is also involved in known as “precision agriculture,” which uses sensors and other technology to maximize water and fertilizer efficiency, among other things. Many of these commercial products were developed at the Washington State University’s Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems. In many rural areas, precision agriculture relies on TV white spaces technology because satellite connections are unreliable.
Increased broadband access can also help rural farmers increase sales through online advertising, according to a 2011 study by University of Illinois researchers.
However, Microsoft’s project should be considered just one of several ways to improve rural internet access, Dye said. “It has to be an integrated approach to try to get access to rural communities. This fills the needs, but there are other options as well.”
She intends to reintroduce her bill next session with revised language that addresses concerns cited during the public hearing. “To me it’s (public-private partnership) the perfect form of government to use for building out infrastructure.”