The push to expand broadband

The push to expand broadband
A new bill aims to expand broadband coverage to all Washington residents, in part through a new state office and better federal funding for local projects. Photo: photo created by kjpargeter - www.freepik.com

According to Broadband Now, 94 percent of Washington residents have access to broadband, placing the state 14th in the nation for coverage. State lawmakers and private stakeholders have continued to push for coverage in the state’s rural areas – and to do so could cost an estimated $1 billion.

A new proposal by Governor Jay Inslee aims to complete the state’s broadband coverage while tackling the funding challenges that often make it difficult for areas to install the necessary infrastructure. The draft bill was the subject of a Jan. 22 work session of the House Capital Budget Committee in which state officials outlined the bill’s strategy. It has now been filed as HB 1498, sponsored by Innovation, Technology & Economic Development Chair Zack Hudgins (D-11). The bill is cosponsored by nine Republicans and Democrats. Its companion bill is SB 5511 sponsored by Sen. Lisa Wellman (D-41).

The bill represents a growing bipartisan consensus on the importance of broadband access. Cosponsor Rep. Mary Dye (R-9) told Lens that “we’re working together collaboratively to ensure that whatever comes out of this bill it does meet the needs of communities that are left behind.” Dye is also a member of the Capital Budget Committee.

One positive aspect Dye attributes to the bill is that it doesn’t define “rural” in a way that would restrict communities lacking broadband access from seeking financial assistance for infrastructure.

At the Jan. 22 public hearing, Inslee economic advisor John Flanagan told panel members that “the typical economic model for expanding broadband into rural (areas) doesn’t work for us. Our especially low-density pockets are really hard to serve.”

If passed, HB 1498 would use $1.2 million from the operating budget to create a Statewide Broadband Office (SBO). One of the office’s missions would be to promote cooperation between local, state and federal efforts related to broadband. SBO would also seek more federal funding for local projects, an area where Washington has lagged compared to other states, according to Flanagan.

However, he stressed the importance of local planning because of how different the solution will be for rural areas. “When it comes down to it…broadband is a local issue. The problem can only really be measured at a local level, and it can only really be solved at a local level, too. Public and private partnerships at the local level and participation at the local level is really going to be key in all of this.”

Another reason is gaining an accurate sense of true coverage, he added. According to the FCC, Stevens County has access to the minimum broadband speed. However, that is demonstrably not true, he argued.

“The reality is, FCC data is deeply flawed,” he added. “It’s hard or even impossible to say what percentage of users lack access.”

HB 1498 includes a $25 million capital budget request to set up a competitive grant/loan through the state Public Works Board. That would shift responsibility from the state’s Community Economic Revitalization Board (CERB), which currently overseas the Broadband Infrastructure Program offering low-interest loans or grants to local governments to build broadband in rural areas. That program was created via the 2018 supplemental capital budget.

Flanagan said the change is due to shifting attitudes on broadband’s role not just in economic development, but in healthcare and education.

“It’s no longer just something that the private sector is engaging in,” Flanagan said. “We want to fund projects that span multiple jurisdictions.”

However, Dye has introduced a bill to preserve funding for CERB’s program, “because they were so efficient with the money they got.” At the same time, she urges caution on the SBO. “Whenever you put in an administrative piece to the program, it’s going to slow things down.”

The importance of broadband for economic development was reflected in a bill approved last year by the legislature allowing port districts to build and operate high-speed internet infrastructure. A Senate bill approved last year set up a pilot program between the Kitsap Public Utility District (PUD) and private telecommunication companies to help increase broadband coverage in the county’s rural areas. In 2017, Microsoft announced plans to bring broadband to two million rural residents.

HB 1498 has been referred to the Innovation, Technology & Economic Development Committee but has not yet been scheduled for a public hearing.

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