Dueling public broadband bills make their way through Washington state legislature

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Two bills that would let local governments operate retail broadband networks are advancing in the Washington State Legislature. Lawmakers predicted Thursday that they will be combined into a single bill before the end of the session.

“We’ve seen this happen before as we come to the end of a session,” said Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-Potlatch). “I’m hoping we can pull these two together and make it work for all the people of Washington.”

On Thursday, the Senate Environment, Energy and Technology Committee approved House Bill 1336 on a 7-3 vote (with two abstentions and two members absent). The bill, whose original sponsor is Rep. Drew Hanson (D-Bainbridge Island), now goes before the full Senate for consideration.

And on Friday, the House of Representative’s Community and Economic Development Committee is scheduled to take action on Senate Bill 5383, sponsored by Sen. Lisa Wellman (D-Mercer Island). Update: SB 5383 passed on Friday on a 7-6 vote along party lines, and will go to the full House.

Under the rules of the Legislature, Friday is the last day for committees to recommend bills to go before the full House and Senate for consideration.

Current state law allows public utility districts and port districts to build broadband networks and provide wholesale internet service to private telecom companies, who provide retail connectivity to homes, schools and businesses. The public agencies are banned from providing direct service to customers.

Both bills are alike in that they would give small cities, county governments, public utilities and port districts authority to offer retail broadband service directly to residents. Under current law, only a handful of cities — including Seattle and Spokane — can do that.

The Senate bill would require local governments to focus their efforts on extending broadband internet service to areas that are currently unserved, while the House bill would allow local governments to compete more directly with private providers who are already there.

The vote in the Senate committee on the House bill fell along party lines, with all Republicans voting no, saying it’s wrong for government agencies to compete with private companies.

“The concern many people have is almost the nationalization of an industry group here,” said Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-Ferndale).

If government agencies are going to provide these services, they should be limited to areas that currently don’t have internet access, said Sen. Shelly Short (R-Addy). “I don’t think this bill helps serve unserved areas at all,” she said.

And a handful of Democrats also said they had concerns with the House bill, and they preferred the approach of the Senate bill that targets unserved areas.

“There are many communities where people have something and then there are many communities that have absolutely nothing and those are the folks we have to take care of first and foremost,” said Sen. Mona Das (D-Covington). “We need to be taking care of communities that have no broadband at all.”

But the majority cited testimony the committee heard during a March 11 public hearing, where rural educators and students talked about their inability to connect to online lessons that their schools were offering during the pandemic. Community leaders said a lack of quality internet was hampering their efforts to attract new business and jobs to small towns, and healthcare executives said the lack of reliable local broadband creates problems and hampers access to telehealth services.

Several speakers noted that private-sector telecom companies have had decades to build out their networks, and if they’re not willing to extend quality internet service to rural communities, the state should let local governments do it.

“It just doesn’t pencil out for the private sector to serve certain areas of the state,” said Rep. Noel Frame (D-Seattle), as she voted in favor of the Senate bill. ”It doesn’t pencil out and they’re never going to do it.”

“If a private entity can’t be found to provide the needed infrastructure, it makes sense for a public agency to pick up the cost,” Mitchell Harper, a Spokane County native who works in cybersecurity, said on March 11 during testimony.

That’s why Sen. Marko Liias (D-Everett) said he would support the House bill, even though he prefers the Senate’s version.

“In 2021, broadband is what water, what electricity, what telephones were in the last century,” Liias said. “We have to make sure everyone’s connected.”

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