/ / Washington state governor expected to sign new bill ending prohibition on municipal broadband

Washington state governor expected to sign new bill ending prohibition on municipal broadband

Rep. Drew Hansen sponsored Washington’s net neutrality bill in 2017 with support from Gov. Inslee. Now he’s helped get a public broadband law through the legislature. (Photo courtesy of HouseDemocrats.WA.Gov.)

Washington municipalities will be able to offer direct-to-consumer broadband service across the state later this year under legislation Gov. Jay Inslee already has agreed to sign.

Washington has been one of only a handful of states restricting municipal broadband and the legislation will eliminate that state prohibition. “The governor’s office assured me he is going to sign in,” said Rep. Drew Hansen, a Kitsap County Democrat who is the primary author of HB1336.

“The truth is a majority of states already allow what this bill does,” Hansen added. 

Specifically, two bills — HB1336 and companion SB5383 — grant 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.

Hansen’s bill gives municipalities broad legal authority to become internet service providers while the companion bill, SB5383, appears to give competitive preference to existing internet service providers. Hansen, a Bainbridge Island attorney, said the bills were tweaked to be compatible and that together they will expand choice and service for consumers. He said he expects the governor to sign both — though some questions have been raised about SB5383.

Additionally, municipalities will be allowed to provide service both inside and outside districts’ boundaries. The legislation will become law on July 1.  

The push for municipal broadband ramped up during the pandemic as millions of school kids and adults had to switch to remote learning and working from home. The shift revealed how many communities are not served or are underserved by existing commercial broadband networks which carry the bulk of internet traffic.

The pandemic, Hansen said, unexpectedly added momentum and weight to an idea that previously didn’t sustain traction: that internet service should be managed like a utility which provides for a basic human need similar to municipal water, garbage, and electricity. He said lawmakers watched hours of troubling testimony in Olympia in which parents said they didn’t have adequate internet service for their kids to attend classes.

Rep. Alex Ybarra. (Washington State House Republicans Photo)

Municipal broadband advocates have long said the connectivity issues for people in both rural and urban communities are two-fold: Do they have internet service available? If they do, does it provide adequate bandwidth for streaming?

“We had rural health centers that lacked sufficient broadband to help patients,” Hansen noted. 

Commercial broadband and cable industry representatives opposed the legislation, citing concerns about the government competing with the private sector. As a result, some lawmakers pushed to have the legislation limited to areas without existing internet service. That stipulation, however, didn’t end up in the final guiding language.

And in fact, neither did Rep. Alex Ybarra, a Republican from Quincy, who dropped his sponsorship of the legislation before it passed the legislature.

Originally a backer of HB1336, he walked away from it after business leaders in his district likened municipal broadband to socialism. But, Ybarra added, he supports the idea of universal broadband and agrees that some private internet providers ignored rural communities in Washington.

“I just didn’t like the way the bill was written,” Ybarra said in an interview Friday to explain his reversal on the bill. “But I agree that something has to be done.”

The Biden administration likely will play a significant role in what will be done. The administration’s infrastructure plan earmarks $100 billion to expand broadband to all Americans. According to a statement from the White House, the plan, “prioritizes support for broadband networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, non-profits, and co-operatives — providers with less pressure to turn profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities.”

Hansen said he wrote his bill with federal government aid in mind. The state legislation, he said, needed to be broad enough to not conflict with the federal plan’s equity and affordability targets. In other words, he added, he wanted to make sure the state regulation change didn’t inadvertently limit federal dollars.

“We want that money to get to everyone,” he said. 

The governor is expected to sign the bills in the coming weeks.

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