Washington Rural Broadband Bill Sails Through House

The proposal would give ports throughout the state the authority to build out fiber optic infrastructure in the communities around them.

by Scott Jackson Moscow-Pullman Daily News / February 20, 2018
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(TNS) — Rural Washington may soon see high-speed internet capabilities, if a bill championed by Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, survives the state senate.

House Bill 2664, which passed the House in a landslide 98-0 vote, seeks to give ports throughout Washington the authority to build fiber optic infrastructure in their areas.

"It's an interesting political bill because there's just a great deal of support among both parties to do something to help rural Washington," Dye said. "There's rural areas throughout the state, even in urban counties like King County, that are underserved and the ports are the greatest tool to get that done."

Dye said Pullman stands out as an example of how access to high-speed internet can foster growth. She said when the Port of Whitman County began building out its network, it gave a small boost to local business and innovation.

"All these wonderful intellectual properties companies sprung up from the minds and imaginations of great engineers and creators and innovators," Dye said. "That's what happens when people have access to technology."

Dye said rural ports were given the authority to build high-speed infrastructure in 2000, but "rural" was defined as counties with less than 100 people per square mile, leaving many areas underserved. She said her bill would simply strike the word "rural" from the language of the original bill, expanding a program she sees as a success.

"Because the legislation was limited to 'rural,' it ended up being more of a pilot project," Dye said. "I just look at what the ports have done with their authority to build broadband infrastructure and they have a great story to tell."

Dye said her bill gives ports the ability to lease their networks to existing internet service providers, but it does not assign them retail authority, which would allow them to circumvent ISPs and sell directly to the consumer. She said creating a new public entity that would compete with private telecommunications companies would make many lawmakers uncomfortable.

"The ports still do not want to have retail authority, they just simply want to have more ports have access," Dye said. "They don't want to be a utility and they also don't want to be a private telephone company. It doesn't fit with their business model at all."

Dye said ports are infrastructure builders. They build an inert network, she said, and rely on ISPs to install the electrical components and manage the service.

"It's just a partnership and they have no intentions of doing anything but building the road and letting the private sector light the road," Dye said. "It makes it easy for private telecoms to access places where they don't have to bite off the entire investment."

She said this also allows smaller ISPs to occupy a local "niché," building out residential services in areas where it would make less financial sense for larger companies.

Dye said there are still steps to take before the bill passes, however, with three weeks left in the current legislative session, she feels confident her bill will continue to attract bipartisan support.

"It's heading over to Senate, (and) it's got a hearing (today)," Dye said. "The goal for that hearing, for me, is to convince them to just keep it simple and let the appeal travel through in the same form that it came out of the house."

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