The revitalization of rural economies inches closer to accessing today’s digital superhighway
As featured in the Huckleberry Press
House Bill 2664, which extends telecommunications authority to all ports in Washington state passed unanimously in both the House and Senate this session. The measure, written by Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, is expected to facilitate the creation of infrastructure allowing for broadband access in rural areas statewide. In this issue of the Huckleberry Press, Rep. Dye shares her thoughts on the bill, and her vision for the future of rural Washington.
Thirty years ago, when I returned to the rolling hills of the Palouse after living abroad in Asia, it felt as though I had traveled back in time, to an era where neighbors were friends and kids played outside until dark. The farmsteads were immaculate, and the oceans of green wheat fields undulated in the eternal breezes.
Today, these same communities are struggling. Main streets are peppered with vacant storefronts, homes falling into disrepair, new businesses come and fail, and our biggest export seems to be our kids. The reality is that telecommunications infrastructure in our small farming towns across eastern Washington have not kept up with the rapid pace of innovation.
A decade ago, large rolls of orange tubing came through town, with companies signing easements to cut through farmsteads and fields. These farm families were not allowed to access the fiber, and they could not understand why they were being passed by.
In 2000, rural ports and public utility districts (PUDs) fought for a law that allowed them to help their communities build fiber networks. The Port of Whitman utilized their authority to partner with the newly formed Noanet, a consortium of PUDs, to build a fiber network from Spokane to Clarkston. The fiber reached out to the two premier land grant universities and the port's industrial parks, airports, campgrounds, and even extended service to Lower Granite Dam. Access to fiber gave residents in the region cellular service on Highway 195, created a cloverleaf that covered neighborhoods throughout Pullman, and brought fiber to homes in Garfield, St. John, LaCrosse, Colfax and soon, Endicott.
The results are real. The economies of the communities with access to fiber are growing. The Industrial park in Pullman hosts 14 tech savvy companies. The returns overall to the communities the port serves includes 2481 direct jobs, resulting in $628 million in direct regional spending. The 43 companies doing business on the Port of Whitman facilities are served with optical fiber giving them access to the global digital economy. They account for 25.3 percent of Whitman County's total sales volume, and represent 19.7 percent of the gross regional product.
The 140-mile fiber network built by the Port of Whitman is an open access road. Seventeen internet service providers, telephone companies and cell phone companies operate on port fiber. It is an affordable option for these companies to reach small communities that would otherwise be too expensive to serve.
Ports have both operations revenue and bonding capacity. Their mission center around economic development and stimulating new opportunities for upstart companies and innovators. Every taxpayer dollar invested creates $5.08 in new tax revenue from the increased economic activity. By investing in basic infrastructure, their “patient capital” can sustain the initial investment and share risk to form successful outcomes for these companies. It is a business model that gives small towns, rural homes, and commercial farms access to the fiber network, that to date, has been off-limits.
The law that passed in 2000 presumed that by granting authority to rural ports, all underserved communities in Washington state would quickly have access to fiber. However, definitions can become claustrophobic when built into law. The definition of “rural” rendered the authority inoperable when it came to replicating the Port of Whitman's success. Very few ports have districts that both fit the rural definition and have the funding capacity and technical expertise as the Port of Whitman.
My bill, House Bill 2664, is simple enough. It removes the definition of “rural” from current statute giving all ports the authority to construct fiber networks. This is a game changer for residents and businesses that cannot convince any network to give them access.
As a result of this change, ports can build open access networks statewide that are affordable for any number of telecoms or internet service providers (ISPs) to operate in underserved towns and neighborhoods. By giving multiple providers an affordable option, and having the ports absorb the initial cost of investment, more people will have an on-ramp to the orange tube and access to the global digital economy.
What will happen when the power of imagination comes to a community in desperate need is yet to be discovered. We have glimpses of inspiration and creativity by looking at the types of innovation that occurred because of the high-speed connection in Pullman.
Connection creates synergy. Our rural communities connected to the global digital super-highway will become the nexus for the next generation of intellectual creativity. The next-gen economy need not be place-bound. Creators will have the ability to seek out areas providing a high quality of life, and the time and spaces needed to inspire the development of intellectual property that is so prized in today's marketplace. Our kids can have an inspiring place to come home to, with the technology to leverage their dreams.