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

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

Washington municipalities will be able to offer broadband service direct to consumers across the state later this year under legislation approved by Governor Jay Inslee.

Washington was one of only a few states to restrict municipal broadband, and legislation will lift that state ban. “The governor has assured me that he will sign up,” said Rep. Drew Hansen, a Kitsap County Democrat who is the lead author of HB1336.

“The truth is that the majority of states are already allowing what this bill does,” added Hansen.

In particular, two bills – HB1336 and its companion SB5383 – give public utilities, counties, cities and ports the legal power to offer retail broadband services to subscribers in the same way that a private company like Comcast does.

Hansen’s Bill gives municipalities broad legal authority to become Internet Service Providers, while Accompanying Bill SB5383 appears to give existing Internet Service Providers a competitive preference. Hansen, a Bainbridge Island attorney, said the bills had been adjusted to be compatible and together they would expand choice and service to consumers. He expects the governor to sign both – although some questions about SB5383 have been raised.

In addition, the municipalities are allowed to provide services both inside and outside the district boundaries. Legislation becomes law on July 1st.

The drive for municipal broadband increased during the pandemic when millions of school children and adults had to switch to distance learning and work from home. The shift revealed how many communities are underserved or underserved by existing commercial broadband networks that carry the majority of Internet traffic.

The pandemic, Hansen said, unexpectedly added pep and weight to an idea that was previously unsuccessful: the Internet service should be managed like a utility company, meeting a basic human need similar to communal water, garbage and electricity. He said lawmakers had seen disturbing statements for hours at Olympia in which parents said they did not have enough internet service for their children to take classes.

MP Alex Ybarra. (Washington State House Republican Photo)

Community broadband advocates have long said that the connectivity problems for people in rural and urban communities are twofold: Do they have internet service available? If so, is there enough bandwidth for streaming?

“We had rural health centers where there wasn’t enough broadband to help patients,” noted Hansen.

Commercial broadband and cable industry officials opposed the legislation, citing concerns about government competition with the private sector. As a result, some lawmakers pushed for legislation to be restricted to areas with no internet service in place. However, this provision did not end in the final master language.

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

Originally a supporter of HB1336, he moved away from it after business leaders in his district compared municipal broadband to socialism. Ybarra added that he supported the idea of ​​a universal broadband network and agreed that some private Internet service providers were ignoring rural Washington communities.

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

The Biden government is likely to play a significant role in what is done. The government’s infrastructure plan provides $ 100 billion for broadband expansion for all Americans. According to a White House statement, the plan “takes precedence over supporting broadband networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, nonprofits and cooperatives – providers with less pressure to make a profit and with commitment to serve whole churches. “

Hansen said he wrote his bill with a view to helping the federal government. State legislation must be broad enough not to conflict with the justice and affordability goals of the federal plan. In other words, he added, he wanted to make sure the change in state regulations didn’t inadvertently restrict the federal dollar.

“We want the money to go to everyone,” he said.

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

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