The state legislature this session passed two separate bills, ESHB 1336 sponsored by Rep. Drew Hansen (R-23) and SSSB 5383 sponsored by Sen. Lisa Wellman (D-41), which set up conflicting public policies for how local governments can provide retail broadband service, and Governor Jay Inslee last week added further legal ambiguity by signing them both off camera—simultaneously—using his left hand to sign one, and his right hand to sign the other.
By doing so, Inslee may evade a state law dictating that whichever bill is signed last takes precedence when it conflicts with other legislation.
“It puts the whole thing into confusion,” Washington Independent Telecommunications Association Executive Director Betty Buckley told Lens. The association represents small, traditional landline telephone companies that have sought to provide broadband service to existing coverage areas.
An advocate for greater rural broadband, Buckley and others backed SSSB 5383, which allowed local governments such as cities, counties, and public utility districts to provide retail broadband service – but only in areas where no coverage existed.
ESHB 1336 offered much greater authority for local governments by allowing them to service “anybody, anywhere, anytime,” Buckley said. “The goal of the House bill was never to provide rural broadband. It was to make a statement about large providers and to create competition for larger providers. If you live on Bainbridge Island and you don’t like the big provider out here, maybe the local PUD will provide you better service or service from somebody that you like. I think that’s incredibly elitist.”
Though both bills passed the legislature, some state lawmakers opposed to ESHB 1336 warned it would incentivize broadband infrastructure expansion in more urban areas and offered little reason to extend it in less populated counties.
It’s an assessment Buckley also shares. “I don’t care if you’re a public entity or a private entity; you’re going to look at your bottom line and think ‘it’s less expensive for us to build an area where there are many customers.’”
Testifying in favor of SSSB 5383 during the session was TDS Telecommunications. Communications Director Kit Beyer wrote in an email that “it appears the priority was to put out a large welcome mat for local governments in the broadband business instead of prioritizing unserved areas, which is important to TDS Telecom. This unfortunate outcome will not change TDS’ fiber expansion efforts in great communities in this state.”
Yet, Buckley added that despite ambiguity over the bills there’s still opportunities for collaboration to improve rural broadband.
“It doesn’t have to be a delay. There are relationships today where a private entity has partnered with a public entity, and they’ve made it work.”
Both bills take effect in July.