The state Senate approved ESHB 1336 sponsored by Rep. Drew Hansen (D-23) on April 11, a measure which would give local governments the authority to provide retail broadband services, in an effort to reach unserved and underserved areas. However, legislators opposed to the bill offered various amendments to prevent what they believe would create an uneven playing field between public entities including ports and public utility districts (PUD) and private broadband providers operating in the same service areas.
The criticism reflects prior remarks made during the bill’s various public hearings in the state House by business advocates due to how the legislation allows local governments to provide service in communities where it already exists. In contrast, a separate Senate proposal sponsored by Sen. Lisa Wellman (D-41) would have restricted the new retail authority for local governments to unserved areas.
Amendments successfully added to the bill include:
- Specifies that a PUD can provide broadband service not only within its district but outside its district by contracting with another PUD or local governments;
- Specifies that a port district may provide retail service outside its district; and
- Requires rather than recommends that local governments conduct a study on the proposed service area before providing broadband.
Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-42) offered various amendments on the Senate floor attempting to address these various provisions in ESHB 1336, all of which were rejected. One of them would have required local governments to be subject to the same rules, regulations, and laws as private sector broadband providers.
“I think the most concerning part…is we have to level the playing field between the PUDs and those companies that are currently providing this type of service throughout our state,” he said. “It’s hard to underestimate what a fundamental shift…this piece of legislation would be for Washington state.”
Opposed to Ericksen’s amendment was Sen. Reuven Carlyle (D-36), who said treating public and private sector entities the same in that regard “would not be in line with the services that the public sector does deliver.”
Ericksen’s argument was that the bill would result in “cherry-picking” in which local governments concentrate on communities with existing but underserved broadband, rather than “last mile” areas where infrastructure would be more costly to install.
Sen. Shelly Short (R-7) made similar remarks as Ericksen when proposing additional amendments. One of them would have removed broadband service authority for counties, second-class cities, and towns.
“It isn’t about PUDs or local governments being bad or anything, or mistrust. It’s really about do you start wide open or do you start with a piece of it to see how it works. Yet this bill…is really wide open for everybody to do it right now. Is it the right thing to do right now? I still worry in this bill…that unserved’s going to be forgotten.”
ESHB 1336 will be sent back to the state House for concurrence.