Two bills have been introduced this session in the House and Senate seeking to improve rural broadband internet access by allowing local governments to provide those services. However, the bills have drawn differing responses from private sector stakeholders due to bill language regarding where those services can be provided. While ESHB 1336 sponsored by Rep. Drew Hansen (R-23) would authorize such service in “underserved” areas, SSSB 5383 sponsored by Sen. Lisa Wellman (D-41) would restrict that authorization to “unserved” areas only.
For business advocates, restraining that authority to areas without service will prevent unnecessary conflict with private telecommunication providers that already provide service.
Testifying on SSSB 5383 at a March 17 public hearing in the House Community & Economic Development Committee, Wahkiakum Telephone and Internet Company President Steve Appelo told legislators “what we built is the sort of network and reach you are looking for.”
He added that the bill is “well-targeted to bring this kind of network to the unserved” and would prevent “overbuilding and cherry-picking.”
According to Appelo, the company serves roughly three customers per square mile and has borrowed millions of dollars to expand its infrastructure to homes. He said that allowing a local government to set up service in the same area could “undermine our ability to repay our loans.”
Tri-City Chamber of Commerce Government & Regional Affairs Director Stephanie Swanberg told the committee that the bill “fosters equity through focusing specifically on building in areas of no access.”
One of the advantages supporters see in SSSB 5383 is that the service area definition is also easier to determine. ESHB 1336 allows local governments to provide broadband internet service with the intent of reaching unserved and underserved communities, though the terms aren’t defined exactly in the bill language. Local governments are “encouraged” to publish a report prior to providing service where evidence is shown that the area lacks sufficient broadband.
Although critical of ESHB 1336, Washington Business Government Affairs Director for Telecommunications Mike Ennis said at the March 17 public hearing that the Senate bill is “a good start.” He emphasized that the bill needs to ensure “public providers are subject to the same rules as private industry.”
Also speaking in favor of the bill was Washington Public Utility District Association Executive Director George Caan. “We want to make sure that all citizens who wish to be served with high quality broadband are afforded the ability to participate in how and who will serve them.” However, he added that “we want to make sure that as we prioritize serving the unserved we do not leave those who are underserved in quality and reliability behind.”
However, some people testifying had mixed thoughts on the bill regarding the role of the state’s Broadband Office. As written, the bill allows existing broadband providers to submit an appeal to the state Broadband Office within 30 days of a public notice regarding the local government’s intent to provide telecommunication services in the same area. If that happens, the two entities must enter into mediation and complete that process within 30 days.
Kitsap PUD General Manager Bob Hunter said this provision should be removed from the bill, though he added “we do agree there needs to be a more deliberate information sharing with the state Broadband Office.”
Also against that provision was Washington Public Ports Association Executive Director James Thompson. “We do object to the veto authority of an unelected official in the state Broadband Office on the decisions made by, and funded by, the citizens and their directly-elected officials. We believe that the function of acting as a gatekeeper, as a regulator, is at cross-purposes to its mission.”
SSSB 5383 is scheduled for executive action on March 23.