A bill to allow public entities to provide retail internet services directly to residents drew a broad coalition of supporters from Lewis County this week, urging lawmakers to pass the legislation that could free up federal funding to get underserved rural residents connected.
Individuals representing private telecommunication companies opposed the bill during public testimony Wednesday, arguing that it would create an uneven playing field, allowing Public Utility Districts (PUDs) to unfairly compete. But others shot back, contending that the private sector had its chance to provide equitable internet access, and has so far fallen short.
“If it ever made sense for the private sector to serve these areas, if there was a profit to be made, we all know they would have gone and made that profit by now,” Port of Chehalis CEO Randy Mueller said. “It’s just not profitable, or not as profitable as investing funds in more urban areas. But it can be done under the utility model, with PUDs and ports breaking even and serving their citizens with affordable, modern high-speed internet service.”
Locally, many leaders have identified profitability as a major barrier to getting internet providers to extend infrastructure to isolated areas with few customers. Painting a picture of the resulting digital divide, Valley View Health Center CEO Gaelon Spradley described rural health clinics relying on “painfully slow” wifi hotspots during outages that hamstring health care workers’ ability to provide care. Winlock School District Superintendent Garry Cameron told lawmakers that the district had to provide 270 hotspots to students with poor or no connection at home when schools went virtual.
Several PUD representatives from around the state identified federal funding — which would be available to PUDs if they became retail providers of telecommunication services — as providing a potentially major boost to the pursuit of rural access. Kitsap County PUD general manager Bob Hunter said current restrictions prevent the entity from applying for the tens of billions of dollars available at the federal level.
“While Kitsap’s current sustainable model will allow us to serve many citizens who have inadequate broadband service, it’ll take 15-20 years to do so,” Hunter said. “Receiving federal funding will reduce this time significantly, as well as the cost to the citizens.”
Lewis County PUD General Manager Chris Roden expressed frustration that despite residents’ requests, PUDs, “created for this purpose,” are restricted from providing internet directly to customers.
The bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, noted that the idea behind the bill is not new, with other states taking similar approaches. He also pointed to the 1930 Washington state initiative that created PUDs in the first place — a push sparked by similar frustrations that private industry was failing to connect rural communities with electricity fast enough. Later, the federal Rural Electrification Act pumped federal funding into local efforts.
“If you were around in the 1930s, the private power companies might have said ‘well, this is unfair. Government shouldn’t enter this … This is unfair competition,’” Hansen said. “Thankfully, the voters of Washington state disagreed.”
Lewis County Commissioner Lindsey Pollock echoed the sentiment, saying Mount Rainier National Park would likely still be burning oil lamps without the help of government funding nearly a century ago.
She, like others, cited a survey conducted by Lewis County PUD, in which the vast majority of respondents said they considered high-speed internet an essential utility.
“As a society, we’ve determined that there are certain minimums of government service provided to Washingtonians funded by our taxes,” Pollock said. “Public roads ensure we all have access to travel and commerce. Public peace officers ensure we have access to safety. Public hospitals provide basic medical care. We do not have an equivalent public safety net for modern communication.”
Community & Economic Development Committee Chair Rep. Cindy Ryu, D-Shoreline, said Wednesday she had “every intention” of moving the bill out of committee.