Washington Legislators at Odds Over Rural Broadband Fixes

Senate Bill 5935 would create a state office dedicated to broadband expansion, but local lawmakers say the legislation doesn’t go far enough to bridge the rural broadband gap.

by Scott Jackson, Moscow-Pullman Daily News / February 13, 2018
Gigabit Internet supporters turned out in force at a rally supporting Chattanooga, Tenn.'s FCC petition to overturn a state law that restricts the city's ability to expand its high-speed broadband network. Shutterstock

(TNS) — High-speed fiber optic Internet may be coming to more of rural Washington, if legislators can agree on how to make it happen.

A huge broadband bill seeking to do just that is being argued on the floor of the state Senate, but local lawmakers say the measure misses the point.

“I’m incredibly disappointed in the feeble efforts of that bill,” Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said.

The bill, known as SB 5935, has a number of controversial items, including the creation of a governor’s office on broadband access, to be housed in the state’s Commerce Department.

“If the governor’s idea is putting a well-paid bureaucrat in the Commerce Department, I’m not interested,” Schoesler said. “I’m interested in game-changing ideas for broadband, not just hiring a bureaucrat and declaring victory.”

Port of Whitman County Executive Director Joe Poire said the bill also expands authority to build and lease fiber optic infrastructure to a few small entities including one port, but they would like to see that offer broadened to include all of Washington’s ports.

“All the other ports that don’t have authority right now would still not have authority,” Poire said. “Ports are all for one, one for all, so that’s an element of the bill we’re not excited about.”

Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, said rural ports like Whitman County were granted this authority in 2000, allowing them to build fiber optic capabilities in under-served areas that would be unattractive markets to private telecommunications companies. However, she said, the legislative definition of “rural” excluded other large counties that didn’t quite make the cut.

“The ‘rural’ definition is counties with populations less than 100 people per square mile,” Dye said. “We have counties with large vast rural areas that have 101 people per square mile.”

Dye said she has presented her own broadband bill, HB 2664, which would simply remove the word “rural” from the language, allowing any port district to become builders of fiber optic infrastructure. Dye said telecoms would be more attracted to access these markets if legislators can divert the up-front investment of building the infrastructure itself to other sectors, such as port authorities. The ports can then build and lease their network wholesale to Internet service providers, both large and small, at an even rate, Dye said. She said her plan works well in a competitive marketplace, asks for no additional dollars from the state and has the best chance of delivering “Seattle prices” for access to rural areas.

“That’s what we want,” Dye said. “We want the same kind of access that the rest of the global marketplace has so that we can be competitive on an even playing field.”

Poire said part of the reason broadband prices in Seattle are cheaper is because there are no monopolies, more competition and millions of people available to purchase the service.

“In downtown Seattle, a telecom provider can buy a gigabit of service for 63 cents,” Poire said. “It’s hundreds and hundreds of dollars in Whitman County.”

Dye said pressure for increased access to fiber optic Internet has come from the grassroots level. For example, she said, dispatch centers want better, more reliable connections for emergency services and Chambers of Commerce need high-speed capabilities to attract new businesses to their areas. Dye noted that Washington is the home of Amazon, whose growing influence is reshaping the way consumers acquire goods.

“They are now becoming the new way we shop and do business,” Dye said.

She said small, brick-and-mortar retailers need access to high-speed Internet if they want to take part in this new online marketplace.

With an estimated 200,000 people in Washington who still do not have access to adequate high-speed Internet, Dye said a prospective solution is attractive to both sides of the aisle.

“It’s very strong bipartisan policy,” Dye said. “How we get there is different; we all are (in) strong agreement on the need.”

©2018 the Moscow-Pullman Daily News (Moscow, Idaho) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.