Government should foster high-speed broadband, not slow its development

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In the Grant County community of George (population 501), just off Interstate 90, is a truck stop where weary travelers pull in to get gas and a bite to eat at the Subway sandwich shop.

On school nights, it is common to find one of the local students sitting in the sandwich shop where she uses the Wi-Fi internet to help her do homework. Broadband is scarce or non-existent in small Eastern Washington towns like George and certainly too expensive for her parents. As more schools and colleges require internet studies, scenarios like this are common.

Washington is home to tech giants like Microsoft, Amazon, Expedia and many businesses that rely day-to-day on access to the World Wide Web. The internet has opened many doors for business, education, socialization, families, friends and more. That is, for those who have internet. For those who don't in our state's remote and rural areas, those doors remain closed, even though the rest of the world expects you to be online, or be left behind.

I've been working to open those doors – to everyone – no matter where you live in Washington. Last year, the Legislature approved House Bill 2664, a measure I authored that gave port districts the ability to build open access networks for private internet service providers to operate in underserved/unserved areas of the state. The Legislature also appropriated $10 million to the Department of Commerce's Community Economic Revitalization Board (CERB) to allow the ports to receive grant/loan funding for broadband infrastructure development.

Since passage of that bill and the funding, broadband has developed at lightning speed. CERB awarded the Port of Whitman County a $750,000 loan and a $250,000 grant to extend fiber optic broadband from Spokane through the communities of Rosalia, Tekoa, Oakesdale, Garfield and Palouse, down to Clarkston. The Port of Garfield received $500,000 for development of fiber to homes. Six other port districts are in line for funding/development. CERB has been a phenomenal partner for these government entities.

After Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill, he came to Pomeroy in June. We talked in-depth about the future of broadband in our state. I hoped he would join me this year in new legislation I have authored – House Bill 1606 – which would officially put CERB in charge of administering grants/loans for broadband development. It makes sense because they are already working with the ports. This would keep the momentum going.

Instead, Gov. Inslee called a press conference, announcing his own measure, House Bill 1498, which would create a new bureaucracy – the Governor's Statewide Broadband Office – to oversee broadband deployment. His bill would also give CERB's broadband duties to the state's Public Works Board, and authorize public utility districts (PUDs) to provide retail internet services.

To ensure my input, I co-sponsored the governor's legislation. However, as written, it is problematic. It allows PUDs to compete unfairly with private providers. By kicking CERB to the curb, it negates the progress we've made to this point and starts the process all over. I'm concerned another government bureaucracy would stand in the way.

I'm glad the governor finally joined my efforts to build broadband statewide. However, we've come too far to start over. I'm willing to merge the best of both bills because we share the same bipartisan vision: ensuring every business, every home, and every person in every corner of Washington has affordable access to a broadband infrastructure.

We need to open the doors of opportunity for all – even for that young student in George so that she can enjoy lunch at Subway, but finally study at night online from the comfort of her own home.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, serves the 9th Legislative District, and is a member of the House Rural Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

State Representative Mary Dye, 9th Legislative District
432 John L. O'Brien Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
360-786-7942 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000