PACIFIC COUNTY — The Pacific County Broadband Working Group met virtually for the first time in 2021 on March 17, covering an array of topics critical in the effort to bring high-speed, affordable broadband internet to the area.
Along with recapping local developments, the group vigorously discussed a pair of bills making their way through the Washington State Legislature. Each bill, if enacted into law, would respectively alter the landscape of how broadband services are offered in rural Washington communities moving forward.
The working group was formed in 2019 and comprises the county government, all four cities, all four ports, Pacific County PUD No. 2, Pacific County Economic Development Council, Shoalwater Bay Tribe and the Pacific County Visitors’ Bureau.
House bill shows promise
Of the two bills currently in the legislature, House Bill 1336 is the one that is clearly favored by members of the working group. Passed in the state House in February on a 60-37 vote, it would allow an array of local governments — including PUDs, ports, counties and small cities — to get back into the broadband game.
The legislation is very broad, and allows local governments to provide direct retail service to customers without having to go through private internet service providers.
“This [bill] is allowing PUDs and ports to get back into the telecommunications business that they were prohibited to enter into some years ago,” said Ocean Park-based business development consultant Kelly Rupp, the lead consultant for the working group.
Simply put, Rupp said it will help bring quality broadband to rural communities more quickly than the current status quo, which is the driving force behind why the county working group was formed.
But the bill’s biggest hurdle from being enacted into law might be the vocal opposition from existing private telecom companies, which forced Pacific County PUD and other public agencies out of the retail internet business with a lawsuit in 2003.
At a March 11 hearing in the Senate Environment, Energy & Technology Committee, telecom advocates tee’d off against the bill, saying it gives local governments too much authority, creates an uneven playing field by allowing service to those who already have some access to broadband and, in the words of a TDS Telecom lobbyist, would be “a colossal waste of money.”
Weary of Senate billAnother bill, Senate Bill 5383, is also working its way through the legislature, this one originating in the state Senate. The bill passed the Senate with an overwhelming majority, on a 43-3 vote.
The bill seems promising at first glance, the working group says, but some members said they were concerned over whether a provision in the text gives existing providers veto-power in the process over the fate of projects proposed by local governments.
One of the most apparent differences between the Senate bill and the House bill is that the Senate bill would restrict local governments to offering broadband access only to “unserved” areas, rather than “underserved” areas the House bill allows.
The bill would allow the existing broadband 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. The existing providers would have the opportunity to claim that the PUD’s project would result in overbuild, by saying it has already begun construction to provide high-speed broadband in the area or that it has already committed funds toward necessary construction to provide broadband.
After 30 days, the state Broadband Office must notify the PUD whether an existing provider filed an appeal. If not, the PUD’s proposed project can move forward. If an appeal is filed, the two groups can choose to enter into mediation — which must be resolved within 30 days.
If an existing provider that filed an appeal doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain to provide the unserved area with broadband within six months — for reasons not outside the provider’s control — the state Broadband Office must notify the PUD and allow work on their project to begin. The existing provider would not be able to object to proposed projects filed with the state Broadband Office for the next 18 months.
At a March 17 hearing in the House Community & Economic Development Committee, speakers representing the PUDs and local government entities spoke out against the appeal process, while speakers representing the telecom companies had generally positive feedback about the bill and the caveats it offers that House Bill 1336 doesn’t.
There was confusion during the working group meeting over the appeal process proposed in the Senate bill, with Rupp interpreting that the bill requires the existing providers to follow through on plans to offer high-speed broadband, or else PUDs can provide their own service.
But Pacific County PUD Commissioner Pam Hickey and General Manager Jason Dunsmoor said it was their interpretation that there was enough wiggle room in the bill so that it didn’t require existing providers to actually follow through on plans to provide broadband service, but also wouldn’t allow PUDs to move forward with offering their own service. Essentially, they believe it gives the existing providers veto-power on proposed projects.
“[Senate Bill 5383 is] still going to be the same status quo, I think, where they say a bunch of stuff, the smoke clears and nothing has changed,” Dunsmoor said.
With just about a month left in the year’s legislative session, it won’t be too long of a wait to find out how the legislature will move forward with the two bills. Whatever they decide will likely leave a lasting imprint on the future of high-speed broadband in Pacific County.
Group declines grant-loan offer
Rupp also announced at the meeting that the Port of Ilwaco last month “respectfully declined” a $3.31 million grant and loan offer from the Washington State Public Works Board to build out fiber extensions and fixed wireless antennas that could provide service to more than 2,600 of the most unserved county residents.
The offer consisted of $612,000 in grant and $2.7 million in loan funds, and the port was one of just seven entities in the state, out of 30 applicants, to be offered state funding.
Rupp said the grant monies were highly sought after, but the loan was a financial obligation that the port and Pacific County PUD would have had to take on without assurance that an existing service provider would agree to come in and provide the last-mile retail service that local governments presently cannot offer.
“We could not in good conscience take on that debt obligation for these public sector institutions, knowing that without a private sector partner to complete that connection to the actual premises that we’re trying to reach, we’d be highly exposed,” Rupp said.
The exposure is even greater when factoring in recent developments regarding satellite broadband connectors, such as SpaceX’s Starlink.
SpaceX was the low-bid winner for a large swath of Pacific County at the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Development Opportunity Fund 904 reverse-auction last summer, which awards funds to ISPs with the lowest bids to build out broadband infrastructure in the most unserved census tracts throughout the country.
SpaceX’s broadcast coverage isn’t going to be limited to just the census tracts that they won, Rupp said, due to them providing service via satellite. If all goes according to plan, they could end up being a county-wide service provider and become a real player in the local broadband market in the near future. Rupp’s among the people who’s already placed their order for the service.
“If indeed they’re as successful as they promise to be, could that seriously undercut the competitiveness of alternative fixed wireless providers?” Rupp asked, saying at least one fixed wireless provider offering service in Pacific County is already losing customers to Starlink.