Brokering statewide broadband

Brokering statewide broadband
Both legislative chambers have passed legislation calling for a broadband office to encourage its expansion to all of Washington. Now, lawmakers will have to reconcile the differences. Photo: freepik.com

Both state legislative chambers have approved bills intended to get high speed broadband internet to the approximately 450,000 Washington residents who still lack access. Now, stakeholders and lawmakers will have to reconcile differences between the two before a final proposal reaches Governor Jay Inslee’s desk.

Those discrepancies were articulated at a Mar. 19 public hearing of the House Innovation, Technology & Economic Development Committee. Some of the changes recommended by the state’s chamber of commerce is intended to prevent overlap between public and private sector infrastructure work.

SSSB 5511 sponsored by Sen. Lisa Wellman (D-41) would set up a state broadband office and create through the Public Works Board a competitive grant/loan program to finance broadband expansion projects. The bill also would allow public utility districts to provide temporary retail internet services, while authorizing port districts to offer wholesale internet services outside of their jurisdictions.

The bill passed the Senate on Mar. 6 in a 47-0 vote, with two senators excused. Its companion bill, HB 1498, sponsored by Innovation, Technology & Economic Development Committee Chair Zack Hudgins (D-11) cleared the House on Mar. 8 in a 95-1 vote.

The two bills differ in several sections regarding the priorities for the grant program and the Public Utility Districts. The Senate version allows the grant program to provide up to 90 percent of funding for a broadband project if it is located within an “economically distressed area.” The House version caps project funding at 50 percent or $2 million, but allows for 90 percent within “financially distressed counties.” The Senate version also includes an expert advisory panel set up by Public Works Board to review grant applications. The House bill gives that authority to the Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC), a provision favored by Inslee’s office.

“We believe UTC is fully capable of the work,” senior policy advisor for Inslee John Flanagan told the committee. He also recommended that the bill include HB 1498’s 50 percent cap on project funding, but allow for up to 90 percent and $5 million for certain communities, “recognizing the tribes are severely underfunded.”

Association of Washington Business Director of Government Affairs Mike Ennis told the committee that the association supports both the idea of a broadband office and grant program, but “we have some concerns over the lack of protections for overbuilding. We are dealing with a finite amount of money and every single dollar must count. We don’t want to waste money overbuilding service where the private sector has already provided it.”

HB 1498 is scheduled for a public hearing on Mar. 20 in the Senate Committee on Environment, Energy & Technology.

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