OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee signed a pair of broadband bills into law last week, and local leaders believe the bills can go a long way toward achieving the goal of bringing high-speed and more affordable internet to homes and businesses in every corner of Pacific County.
Inslee signed House Bill 1336 and Senate Bill 5383 into law on May 13, after both passed the state Legislature in the waning days of the 2021 session that adjourned on April 25.
Among 19th District legislators, Rep. Jim Walsh (R-Aberdeen) voted in support of HB 1336, and Walsh and Rep. Joel McEntire (R-Cathlamet) both voted in support of SB 5383. McEntire did not vote on HB 1336, while Sen. Jeff Wilson (R-Longview) voted against both of the broadband bills.
Not only did Inslee sign both of the bills into law on the same day, he signed them at the exact same time — one with his left hand and the other with his right hand, according to Crosscut. Inslee also signed both of the bills off-camera, while other bills signed that day were captured on video.
The extraordinary measure taken by Inslee comes after there has been much debate whether the two bills substantially conflict with each other and could eventually lead to a lawsuit.
HB 1336 allows PUDs, ports, smaller cities and other public entities in Washington state to provide unrestricted retail broadband service directly to consumers. Under previous law, these entities could only offer wholesale service to the private telecommunications providers, who vigorously opposed this bill. Washington was one of just 18 states that had such restrictions on municipal broadband operations.
SB 5383 is more limited in scope, narrowing the retail authority for public entities to areas classified as “unserved” — those lacking access to internet service with at least 100 megabits per second download speed and 20 megabits per second upload speed. The bill also allows the private telecom providers to file an appeal to the Washington State Broadband Office within 30 days of a public notice of a PUD’s intent to provide broadband services in the same area.
According to the Revised Code of Washington, if two bills do conflict with each other, the last bill signed into law takes precedence over the other. The Office of the Secretary of State assigns a number to a bill based on the order it is signed into law. A spokeswoman for the office told Crosscut that they planned to ask a Thurston County Superior Court judge for guidance about what to do in this situation.
A spokesman for Inslee told Crosscut that the governor’s legal counsel didn’t believe the bills were in conflict with each other, which would render the point moot. Amendments were approved by the Legislature late in the session that are meant to allow the bills to co-exist. But after lobbying from each of the bill’s lead sponsors over which order the bills should be signed into law, “it only seemed fair to sign them at the same time,” the spokesman said.
House bill wins local acclaim
HB 1336 in particular was heralded by the Pacific County Broadband Working Group, because it immediately allows Pacific County PUD and local ports to get into the broadband game, while also opening the door to millions of dollars of federal grant funds. The Washington Public Utility Districts Association (WAPUDA) worked with the bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Drew Hansen (D-Bainbridge Island), on the legislation.
Kelly Rupp, an Ocean Park business development consultant and the lead consultant for the county working group, urged caution as to any local plans being immediately put on the table.
“It’s not a certainty that our local ports or PUD will immediately jump at the opportunity to directly offer retail broadband, but these bills certainly introduce a ‘new tool in the toolbox’ that changes the decision calculus and will trigger new financial modeling of how to sustain retail operation,” Rupp said in an email. He noted that the working group still has funds remaining from a feasibility assessment grant from the state Public Works Board that it could invest into such planning.
Rupp said there are a number of issues that need to be addressed before local efforts to provide broadband begin, including whether the PUD will be able to “turn the switch back on” of its retail service operations — such as end-user installation, customer service and billing — that they previously provided before restrictions on municipal broadband access were put in place in 2003.
Other questions that need to be answered, Rupp said, include whether upgrades or further investment is needed to meet now-current service expectations from the public, and if new partnerships should be created to leverage the advantages of having a larger scale operation.
And then, of course, there is the cloud of uncertainty about whether HB 1336 and SB 5383 will be able to co-exist together, a question that may have to be answered in court. Rupp said he was working to find out more information on any possible legal challenges, and that it’s something WAPUDA is providing guidance to its members on.
Other issues still outstanding are a ruling from the Federal Communications Commission on whether the Shoalwater Bay Tribe will be granted a waiver to provide broadband service beyond tribal lands, as well as how robustly SpaceX’s Starlink satellite beta installations perform in the county’s dense forest terrain.
The county working group is also bullish on being able to tap into “very credible” federal infrastructure funding for fiber extensions and middle-mile distribution, Rupp said, as well as opportunities like credits or vouchers for low-income families to be able to pay for broadband.
Along with totally lifting restrictions on local entities to provide broadband, the ability to now qualify for federal funds was another big reason why HB 1336 was much more preferred than SB 5383 by municipalities throughout the state. Rupp said grant and loan programs are being prepared for the likes of ports, PUDs and municipalities to tap into at both the state and federal level for broadband infrastructure expansion.
The group is still learning the details of the programs, so no applications have been submitted as of now, Rupp added.