Legislation provides path for broadband expansion

When the 2022 Washington state legislative session adjourned on March 10, it was once again in unprecedented fashion. The shortened session, which lasted just 60 days, was held virtually due to ongoing concerns about COVID-19.

But while legislators were able to participate in this year’s session remotely, not every Grays Harbor resident has the same privilege when it comes to participating in the virtual world.

Internet equity has risen to the forefront of the national political dialogue over the last two years, as the world quickly shifted to remote work and school environments. Both the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), two major federal spending bills passed and signed into law by President Biden in 2021, included provisions for improved broadband access.

The Affordable Connectivity Program of the IIJA includes $14.2 billion for discounted internet services for families through financial assistance programs.

“I have been pushing for better broadband access since before the pandemic, but it wasn’t until COVID-19 hit that we really got everyone’s ears to perk up on this issue,” said Senator Murray (D-WA) in a press release on Feb. 3.

“That’s why I’m so glad we were able to pass major investments in high-speed internet and digital inclusion in both the American Rescue Plan and the Bipartisan Infrastructure law, which put us firmly on the path toward universal broadband, will help cut costs, and finally bridge the digital divide.”

As federal and state dollars flow in for improved broadband access, the local community has its own gaps it must fill to bridge that digital divide. According to a 2019 estimate by the AWB Institute, 9.89 percent of households in Grays Harbor County had no form of internet at all.

That burden falls hardest on the most rural areas of the county, where private internet providers are less likely to invest in expensive broadband infrastructure for such a small number of customers.

“In the last decade, the state has come a long way in recognizing that improving broadband is a big issue,” said Grays Harbor PUD #1 (GHPUD) Communications and Government Relations Director Ian Cope at the 2022 Legislative Session Business Forum Lunch in Aberdeen.

The event, hosted by Greater Grays Harbor (GGH) on Tuesday, April 26, featured a discussion on the 2022 Washington state legislative session and economic development outcomes. Attendees included 19th Legislative District Representatives Jim Walsh and Joel McEntire, and Senator Jeff Wilson. While 24th Legislative District Representative Mike Chapman was unable to attend due to illness, Representative Steve Tharinger was present.

“With the pandemic, it became obvious very quickly that there were have and have-nots when it came to internet access,” said Cope. “In a lot of the rural areas, internet access just didn’t exist.”

GHPUD attempted to close this gap by expanding their network in the county’s sparest area of coverage. The PUD applied for over $5 million in funds from the Washington State Public Works Board to expand their network infrastructure along U.S. Highway 12 near the county line. The proposal included expansion into Porter-Malone and Oakville, among other communities in East County.

“This was a project that would’ve expanded our network and allow providers to reach those customers,” said Cope.

“Over our past couple of years we’ve done community outreach to see what the desire of those areas were, and it was pretty clear that we needed improved access out there. During the pandemic, people were talking about driving into Elma just to get a signal to send an email or check their bank account.”

Due to the application process with the Public Works Board, private broadband providers are able to object to the project with no opportunity for amendment or re-review.

The GHPUD proposal was killed due to an objection over a $30,000 section of network expansion in Elma. According to Cope, if revisions were allowed the PUD would’ve been able to cut out this section in order for the rest of the multimillion-dollar project to proceed.

The future of the network expansion project, however, is not set in stone. On June 9, a bill passed this year by the Washington state legislature will go into effect that modifies certain application and public notice requirements for the Public Works Board’s broadband program.

House Bill 1673 may help public entities like GHPUD pass projects through a more collaborative and transparent application process.

“The bill that was passed, HB1673, would allow some changes now to the process that we hope would allow situations like the one that upended our application would be able to get through. That was definitely one of the more significant pieces of broadband legislation for PUDs this session,” said Cope.

Last session, the legislature passed the Public Broadband Act (HB1336), which went into effect July 25, 2021.

The bill allowed public entities–such as ports, nonprofits, and community-owned public utility districts–to provide retail broadband services and launch their own public broadband networks, an option that they had previously been banned from pursuing.

While GHPUD has decided not to take up the option, Jefferson and Kitsap PUDs have taken the new legislation as an opportunity to expand internet access in their communities by becoming retailers themselves.

“It’s not all about funding, the process is two-fold. The first part is about committed dollars. The second part, the difficult part, is about getting those dollars into the proverbial shovels — that’s where I think we’ve fallen short,” said 19th Legislative District Representatives Jim Walsh at the GGH Lunch.

According to Cope, GHPUD has reapplied to the Public Works Board to grant funds for the East County network expansion project. The PUD is also considering expansion up in the “River Valley” to improve service for communities, such as Satsop, Wynoochee, and Wishkah.

“Rural expansion is certainly one of the main focuses that our IT department is looking at right now,” he said.