In the ongoing push to extend broadband across Washington, all of the state’s 75 port districts will be able to build and operate high-speed internet infrastructure if the Senate approves a bill unanimously approved by House lawmakers February 14.
HB 2664 will extend to urban districts a state policy adopted nearly two decades ago for rural port districts, which supporters say will hasten access to broadband.
Prime sponsor Rep. Mary Dye (R-9) told colleagues on the House floor that “The cost of broadband fiber can be very daunting, and we have many areas in our state that have low population density not just on the eastside, where my district is, but across the state.”
That includes the Port of Ridgefield, located in Clark County along the Columbia River. Under the state law passed in 2000, rural ports are allowed to build telecom infrastructure and use unlit (dark) optical fiber for wholesale telecom services. However, the policy defined a “rural” port as one located in a county with a population density of 100 people per square mile.
That means ports like Ridgefield with a “rural” population density within the district, but located in counties well above that threshold, aren’t allowed to build the infrastructure.
The absence of high-speed internet makes it difficult to entice companies, says Port of Ridgefield’s Vice President of Innovation Nelson Holmberg. The port envisions constructing fiber optic infrastructure along its “Discovery Corridor,” a nine mile stretch along Interstate 5 between Vancouver and north Clark County, which they then would lease to providers such as Comcast or CenturyLink.
“That whole Discovery Corridor area is kind of the economic growth outlet valve for the Portland Vancouver metro area,” he said. “We refer to ourselves as a ‘community port.’ We do infrastructure and real estate for the creation of jobs. We’re really more of an economic developer than a marine terminal.”
However, he said they often hear a common complaint from employers interested in the corridor: “Where’s the broadband? We’re missing the kind of broadband we need.”
“The construct of ‘rural’ in the current statue is kind of a force fit,” Dye said. “It limits those rural communities” with population densities just above that threshold “from having this avenue of receiving access to broadband infrastructure.”
“It is a true public-private partnership,” she added. “Ports have successfully constructed broadband networks. They have a great story to tell.”
Last session, Dye proposed another public-private partnership to improve broadband access via HB 1702. The legislation would have allowed port districts to extend their telecommunication services to customers outside their districts through an exclusive contract with a private telecom company operating the facilities. That bill failed to clear the Committee on Technology & Economic Development.
Rep. Jeff Morris (D-40) is chair of the Technology & Economic Development committee, where HB 2664 received a “do pass” recommendation earlier this month. He told colleagues on the House floor that the legislature approved the 2000 state law in “the hope was that it was going to bring more broadband access to rural Washington.” HB 2664 will be “another tool in the tool box,” he added.
Rep. Paul Harris (R-17) said that “I think sometimes we do things here (and) we don’t realize the importance of it. For the Port of Ridgefield, this is an important bill.”
Earlier this week, the Senate approved legislation creating a pilot project between the Kitsap Public Utility District (PUD) and private telecommunications companies to improve broadband access.
The bill is scheduled for a February 20 public hearing in the Senate Committee on Energy, Environment and Technology.