May 28, 2021
Major funding, new policies aim to provide ‘basic necessity’ of broadband
Jacqueline Allison

Dots on the Washington Broadband Access and Speed Survey map indicate download speeds reported in various localities: green indicates high speed (more than 500 Mbps) or medium (25-500 Mbps); yellow indicates low (10-25 Mbps); red, very low (o-10 Mbps); and black, no service. The data is presented by the Broadband Office of the Washington State Department of Commerce.

May 28, 2021
Major funding, new policies aim to provide ‘basic necessity’ of broadband
Jacqueline Allison

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After a year in which some students’ only internet option was to connect to hotspots in school and library parking lots, and people everywhere struggled to work from home or to access telemedicine, state legislators made a big push this session to expand high-speed internet across the state. 

The Legislature in April approved a record $411 million in its capital budget to expand broadband infrastructure, a major jump from previous budget allocations of less than $30 million. The money will fund grant programs that help local governments build fiber-optic networks to deliver broadband, in particular in communities with limited or zero connectivity, which could include north and east Whatcom County. 

Meanwhile, the Legislature approved two bills that remove restrictions on local governments’ ability to provide internet services directly to customers. Gov. Jay Inslee signed both bills simultaneously on May 13. 

The new laws are expected to open up federal funding sources to expand broadband networks, local officials say. 

At the federal level, there may be more big money coming. President Joe Biden has pledged to spend $100 billion over the next eight years on broadband as part of his proposed infrastructure plan. 

‘Not a luxury’

State Rep. Alex Ramel, D-Bellingham, was a co-sponsor of House Bill 1336, one of the two bills that give local governments authority to provide retail internet services. He said the new state funding and legislation providing access to federal money will help boost broadband connectivity. 

“In the last year, we’ve all really realized broadband isn’t a luxury, it’s a basic necessity of modern life,” he said.

A 113-mile, fiber-optic network to bring broadband to rural Whatcom County — where internet is limited and often more expensive — was already in the works before the latest funding votes. Once built, the network will be leased to private internet service providers [ISPs]. 

The Port of Bellingham, which is building the network, may be able to benefit from additional state funds, said port economic development project manager Gina Stark. 

“I’m just really excited with this investment by the state to get these fiber builds started so we can get broadband out to rural communities,” she said. 

The Whatcom County Public Utility District 1 (PUD) wants to get more involved with broadband, too. 

“Our commission has been talking about broadband extensively and the role that we can play in Whatcom County to help bridge the digital divide,” said Christine Grant, one of three Whatcom PUD commissioners. 

The PUD primarily provides water and electricity to industrial areas in Whatcom County and water for agricultural irrigation. 

Grant, first elected in 2020, and PUD commissioner Atul Deshmane, first elected in 2018, both promoted broadband in their campaigns, arguing that high-speed internet was a public utility. 

Deshmane said the PUD wants to support broadband in Whatcom County by contributing funds and other resources. Earlier this year, the PUD created a new, full-time, broadband services analyst position, but the position has not yet been filled. 

Another idea is to create a countywide broadband map showing who has access to broadband, who doesn’t, and if customers are receiving competitive offerings, Deshmane said.

In January, the district approved a letter of support for HB 1336. While PUDs already have authority to offer wholesale internet services, the legislation gives them additional ability to offer retail internet services.

Deshmane said the PUD has no plans to get into the retail internet business, and that doing so would be a large undertaking for the small organization. 

He said PUDs around the state supported the legislation because it would benefit their communities.

“Many sources of funding, in particular (U.S. Department of Agriculture), require that the recipient of the funding has the ability to serve retail end users,” he said. “Many PUDs want funding from USDA for rural broadband, but can’t access it because of restrictions in the state.”

For the economy’s future

The historic $411 million to expand local broadband infrastructure is part of the state’s $6.3 billion capital construction budget, which unanimously passed the Legislature on April 24.

According to a state budget document, the broadband funding includes:

  • $326 million for Washington State Broadband Office grants
  • $60 million for Public Works Board grants/loans for broadband in unserved areas
  • $25 million for Community Economic Revitalization Board funds for broadband in underserved and rural communities. 

James Thompson, executive director of the Washington Public Ports Association (WPPA), which represents the state’s 75 ports, noted the Legislature approved about 15 times more money for broadband than it has in the past. 

“(Broadband) is a priority because there is big funding coming,” he said. “We have ports building broadband every day; it’s part of the future of economic development and the new economy infrastructure.”

The Port of Bellingham’s estimated $6.8-million, three-segment fiber backbone will include sections of aerial fiber and fiber buried underground in conduit. 

Segment one will connect Bellingham, Cedarville, Limestone Junction and Glacier; segment two will connect Nugent’s Corner and Nooksack and run west to Birch Bay; and segment three will extend south from Deming along Highway 9 to Skagit County (ref. “Internet connectivity has improved in Whatcom County, but many gaps remain,” Salish Current, Feb. 25, 2021).

The port has secured funding to cover the bulk of the roughly $2 million segment from Bellingham to Glacier. Stark said construction on segment one is expected to begin in 2022. 

“We’ll be able to do additional investment with funding from the state,” she said.

Digital equity

In addition to infrastructure funding, the state also passed $1.7 million to support digital equity, including digital literacy training, technical support, access to affordable devices and affordable internet, states an April 29 article on the state Department of Commerce’s Medium page.

At the federal level, the 2020 stimulus bill created a $3.2 billion fund to establish the Emergency Broadband Benefit program. The program, launched in mid-May, provides subsidies to low-income and financially distressed people for internet service and computers. The subsidies can be accessed by applying to ISPs until funds are depleted or the COVID health crisis is declared over.

Stark said funding digital equity is important.

“It’s not just about providing physical access to the infrastructure, it’s also ensuring our community can afford it and are able to navigate it and utilize it,” she said

Not one but two bills

The two new laws aimed at expanding publicly owned broadband infrastructure are creating confusion as well as opportunity. 

House Bill 1336, sponsored by Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, allows PUDs to provide retail internet services within and outside of the district’s limits, and to partner with federally recognized tribes to expand internet access. Ports may also provide retail services under the bill. 

The bill drew widespread support, with hundreds signing in to support the bill during remote testimony. 

According to a summary of testimony, commenters said that Washington is among a minority of states that place restrictions on governments’ ability to provide internet services on a retail basis. The bill could help boost connectivity not only in rural areas, but for those with unreliable and unaffordable internet. 

“HB 1336 gives Washington communities like ours the freedom and ability to solve one of our most critical infrastructure needs,” Grant, the Whatcom PUD commissioner, testified at a March 11 hearing.

Thompson, with WPPA, testified that HB 1336 was priority piece of legislation for the state port association.

“It represents a critical policy shift that will address economic issues, education issues, health care issues, and importantly equity issues,” he said. 

He said ports’ goals are not to compete with private providers, but to expand infrastructure for companies to provide service. 

Sara Young, representing the Port of Skagit, said funding would help the port extend its open-access wholesale fiber network to the most rural communities east of Sedro-Woolley to Marblemount and south to the Sauk Suiattle tribal community, where internet service is limited or nonexistent.

“Retail authority would just be one more tool for us in the toolbox and help us have access to federal funding and generate more creative partnerships,” she said

Those who testified against the House bill included members of the telecom industry, who argued that private companies have already invested billions in broadband infrastructure and that the bill provides no assurance unserved communities will get internet first.

Specifying the ‘unserved’

Senate Bill 5383, sponsored by Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, addressed some of these concerns. The bill permits public entities to provide retail internet services in “unserved” areas only. An unserved community is one lacking access to at least 100 Mbps [megabits per second] download and 25 Mbps upload speeds, according to the bill. 

The bills allows ports and PUDs to use state and federal funds to expand broadband in unserved areas. 

At a Feb. 3 hearing, Wellman said the goal is to bring broadband to areas of the state lacking connectivity — not to those already served by an existing ISP.

Broadband installations in rural areas typically combine above-ground as well as below-ground installations. (Image: Stealth Communications, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Senate bill won the support of several telecommunications and business associations.

Opponents of the bill testified that limiting retail authority would hamper access to federal funding. Another argument was that many households — not just those in unserved areas — lack access to reliable broadband. 

Both bills passed the Legislature and were signed by Inslee. 

‘Unprecedented’ simultaneous signing 

Inslee’s decision to sign both pieces of legislation at the exact same time has created new complications.

Crosscut reported on May 17 that, when two bills conflict with one another, the last to be signed takes precedence under state law. However, Inslee reportedly signed both bills simultaneously, with his left and right hands, so that both bills became law at the same exact moment. While most bill signings are broadcast for the public to see, the camera was turned off for HB 1336 and SB 5383, Crosscut reported. 

Crosscut reported that HB 1336 sponsor Hansen said the two bills were amended so they could work together. However, SB 5383 sponsor Wellman disagreed, stating the bills conflict because one allows public entities to broadly serve customers, while the other limits authority to unserved areas.

Mike Faulk, spokesperson for Inslee’s office, said in an email the governor’s office sees no conflict between the two bills passed by the Legislature. Both will appear in the state’s code, he said. 

“Both legislators made compelling and passionate arguments to the governor for signing their bill first,” Faulk said. “It seemed only fair to sign them at the same time and to allow the regular process to resolve the technical issue of which version will appear first in the code.”

He said because there is no conflict between the two bills, the one that appears first in the code won’t override the second bill. 

However, Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman — whose office is in charge of numbering and filing bills passed by the Legislature — is asking a court to determine next steps.

Wyman filed a petition in Thurston County Superior Court on May 18, seeking legal clarifications on how to proceed with filing and numbering the bills, the Washington Wire reported on May 20.

“Advocates of the bills contend that parts of each act conflict in language and purpose and that the filing order may thus substantively impact the validity of parts of each law,” the petition states.

Wyman said in a statement to the Washington Wire that having two bills signed at the exact same time was “unprecedented.”

— Reported by Jacqueline Allison

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