When it comes to municipal broadband, this Washington state utility was way ahead of the game

You are interested in When it comes to municipal broadband, this Washington state utility was way ahead of the game right? So let's go together look forward to seeing this article right here!

(GeekWIre Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

It didn’t take a pandemic, work-from-home mandates, or remote learning initiatives for Bob Hunter to understand the potential popularity of municipal broadband. He was hearing it every day from Kitsap County government employees.

Hunter, the general manager for the Kitsap Public Utility District just west of Seattle, years earlier had led a wave of infrastructure improvements to link local government buildings, public schools, and hospitals to a high-speed digital pipe.

The work took years. But the reaction was immediate.

“We have community people who worked at those places come to us and say, ‘Hey, how can we get this at home? Because I have crappy DSL,” Hunter recalled. “Honestly, that’s what propelled us in this direction.”

And in a way, it’s also what helped propel Washington state, too. Signed last week by Gov. Jay Inslee, two municipal broadband bills for the first time allow local districts to become direct internet service providers. In part, these new laws trace their roots back to the KPUD and Rep. Drew Hansen, the Bainbridge Island lawmaker who represents the district and sponsored one of the two bills.

But Hunter’s long-term plan isn’t what the telecom industry fears: the transition of private, for-profit industry into a public utility. He wants to do for local broadband what transportation departments have done for trucking companies: We’ll build the roads and you make your money on them.

“I believe in open-access networks,” he said. “As a utility, we’re great at infrastructure. It’s what we do. And they are great at turning the internet into a business. So why not have broadband companies involved?”

Taking effect July 1, Hansen’s HB1336 grants legal authority to public utility districts, counties, towns, and port districts to offer retail broadband service to subscribers in the same manner that a private company such as Comcast does.

Essentially, Hansen’s bill gives municipalities legal authority to become internet service providers. Additionally, municipalities will be allowed to provide service both inside and outside districts’ boundaries.

Prior to the governor’s signature, Washington had been one of the few states to forbid municipalities from offering direct-to-customer broadband access. The state’s push to allow for municipal broadband parallels the Biden administration’s drive to increase federal spending on a variety of broadband initiatives including expanding access and reducing monthly costs.

Big telecom companies have long opposed the expansion of public broadband at the state and federal levels because they see government and its access to taxpayer dollars as unfairly competitive to private businesses. Moreover, they argue, broadband speeds, access, and cost are just fine.

Conversely, many local broadband customers, such as those within the KPUD — who were served by Century Link — didn’t see anything worth protecting in slow download speeds, erratic service, and high costs.

Still, KPUD’s Hunter didn’t want to take ownership of a whole system. He knows, as do many people who track municipal broadband efforts, that publicly managed broadband systems don’t always end up working out as the public had hoped.

His plan for Kitsap County is an extension of what the district already does: Put fiber optic cable to all areas and then open the system for internet service providers to use it.

Broadband for all

Four years prior to the legislation, Kitsap PUD had financed a project to connect some of its existing trunk lines to public buildings and extend them all the way to many residences. Because state law at the time prevented the utility from selling that feed directly to customers, it set up an open-access network, meaning that ISPs could rent space in the lines and then, in turn, charge broadband service to customers.

Currently, customers in Kitsap County can choose between five ISPs. “Our whole model has been let the PUDs build infrastructure — that’s what we do well — and let the private compete on price and service over our network,” Hunter said.

And this was working fine, or so Hunter thought until Pomeroy Republican Rep. Mary Dye approached him and said, “I love your model but isn’t it just broadband for the rich?”

Hunter was taken aback. He agreed it was broadband for those who could afford it. The PUD legally could not subsidize the cost to homeowners. The reality began to bother him.

“Ultimately, that was a true statement by (Dye),” Hunter said.

As a result, the KPUD began seeking federal grants to help subsidize costs for people who could not afford access. And that’s when district officials learned about the key restriction in the subsidy program administered by the Federal Communications Commission: The money could only go to internet providers with a “retail relationship with the end-user” — exactly what Washington state law prevented municipal districts from having.

Still, this limit didn’t make it to the top of the fix-it list until exactly one year later. That’s when the pandemic hit. Administrators began shutting down schools and switching to remote learning. Many kids either lacked internet service in their neighborhoods or their families simply could not afford it. The cracks in the system expanded into canyons.

A long-term fix

Bremerton School District Superintendent Aaron Leavell congratulates members of the Class of 2020 during the Graduation Gauntlet. (BSD Photo)

Hunter remembered the February 2020 emergency meeting KPUD had with the five Kitsap County school districts. “We asked them ‘What can we do to help?’”

Aaron Leavell, superintendent with the Bremerton School District, piped in. His urban district’s problem wasn’t so much about access. It was about affordability.

“When the pandemic hit,” Leavell said in a recent interview, “it really exposed the lack of access to the internet. This is a basic need for folks.”

Nationally, education experts say one good indicator of a potential lack of sufficient internet access is the level of student enrollment in free and reduced-cost lunch programs. In the Bremerton School District last year, 2,781 out of 4,316 students used such meals programs or 64%.

As schools closed, the need for better internet access quickly became obvious, Leavell said. “We needed to do something right away.” Triage came in the form of cellular hotspots to delivered to 510 local households. But a longer-term fix was needed, particularly in the county’s far-flung rural communities with no cable and limited cellular network signals.

Rep. Hansen, who also attended that meeting with the districts, realized the longer-term fix was to remove the state restrictions on municipalities so the network could expand beyond the most easily profitable. Additionally, giving the various districts the right to bill customers directly opened up hundreds of millions in potential subsidies for low-income families.

Hunter, working with KPUD’s telecommunications manager Angela Bennink, came up with a novel idea to both get the subsidies and provide open access.

The district plans to send the bills to the customer for the broadband providers that use its fiber optic lines. In turn, the district would bill the broadband companies for the actual cost. This will allow KPUD access to low-income and infrastructure subsidies, and still keep the private industry involved in creating service packages for customers. Additionally, it gives KPUD the right to compete with or toss any ISP out of the network for providing inadequate service or access.

“We feel like everyone wins,” Hunter said.

But one unusual problem remains.

While Hansen’s bill gave municipalities the broad legal authority to become internet service providers, Gov. Inslee at the same time signed a competing bill, SB5383. That bill appears to give competitive preference to existing internet service providers.

In other words, it might limit municipal service providers from stepping into offering service when existing — and even potentially inadequate — internet service already exists. Hansen, who is an attorney, said the bills were tweaked to be compatible and that together they will expand choice and service for consumers.

Bremerton School District’s Leavell certainly hopes so. He said one of the pandemic’s silver linings is that it seemed to make the public aware that access to the internet is similar in importance as access to water and electricity. He said administrators in his district have known that internet service wasn’t consistently available among the students.

“We’ve always known that this was a problem,” he said. “But other daily things, immediate needs, pushed that priority aside. We never got (fixing it) off the ground.”

Then the pandemic happened, he said, “and priority lists got rewritten for good.”

Conclusion: So above is the When it comes to municipal broadband, this Washington state utility was way ahead of the game article. Hopefully with this article you can help you in life, always follow and read our good articles on the website:

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button