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Bill would expand local government broadband authority

Bill would expand local government broadband authority

The state House last month passed ESHB 1336 sponsored by Rep. Drew Hansen (R-23) – a measure that would give a variety of local governments authorization to provide telecommunication services such as broadband internet to “underserved” areas.

While the bill drew praise from some local government officials at its March 11 public hearing in the Senate Committee on Environment, Energy & Technology, some business advocates compared it unfavorably to a similar bill introduced in the Senate.

Under a 2003 attorney general opinion, first-class cities and charter counties are authorized to provide telecommunication services if not specifically prohibited. ESHB 1336 would expand that authority to other local governments. However, public utility districts (PUDS) and ports are “encouraged” in the bill to report on a potential service area’s current broadband availability and evidence of how it is being underserved. 

Testifying at the March 11 public hearing, Hansen said the bill gives all local governments “the same unrestricted authority that cities already have. It removes restrictions that prevent some units of government from serving the public in ways that they want. This really isn’t a partisan issue.”

Those testifying in favor of the bill noted the growing importance of high-speed internet access during the past year.

“We’re asking you to give us this authority so that counties that wish to provide this incredible public utility service be able to do so,” Pierce County Councilmember Derek Young said.  “This is not just a rural-urban divide. This is an economic justice issue. It’s about equal access. We may be able to reduce vehicle miles traveled if we have more people able to work from home more often.”

Also in favor of the bill was Island County Commissioner Janet St. Clair, who said the bill “provides a pathway to expanding broadband through multiple strategies. We know broadband is critical infrastructure. The pandemic only amplified what we know to be true.”

However, opponents such as TDS Telecommunications State Government Affairs Manager Gail Long argued that the bill overextends local government authority. She added that local governments should only be able allowed to provide broadband services in unserved, rather than underserved, areas.

Association of Washington Business Government Affairs Director for Telecommunications Mike Ennis described the legislation as “a colossal waste of money” that would create “an uneven playing field. (It) allows service to those who already access.”

A similar bill is SB 5383 sponsored by Sen. Lisa Wellman (D-41), which cleared the Senate on Feb. 26 and is now scheduled for executive action on March 19 in the House Committee on Community & Economic Development. Ennis said that bill “is a better approach” because it limits broadband service authority to only unserved areas.

No further action is scheduled for HB 1336.

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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