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Sept. 19, 2021

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New Washington laws start to close public broadband gap — but it’s a small step

Legislators are spending $400 million to expand broadband, while opening up public internet options. But access for everyone is still a long way off.

By Melissa Santos, Crosscut
Published:
2 Photos
Shannon Beddo, a co-op school teacher based in Kingston, Wash., sits at her desk where she teaches remote classes on July 13, 2021. "Technology hates me," says Beddo, lamenting her internet service. "Sometimes when I'm doing video conference all I see is black boxes where my students faces should be. It's so important to be able to see them on the screen and I cannot." Beddo believes that everyone deserves quality broadband internet regardless of whether they live in urban areas or more rural parts of Washington state. (Matt M.
Shannon Beddo, a co-op school teacher based in Kingston, Wash., sits at her desk where she teaches remote classes on July 13, 2021. "Technology hates me," says Beddo, lamenting her internet service. "Sometimes when I'm doing video conference all I see is black boxes where my students faces should be. It's so important to be able to see them on the screen and I cannot." Beddo believes that everyone deserves quality broadband internet regardless of whether they live in urban areas or more rural parts of Washington state. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut) Photo Gallery

During the pandemic, Shannon Beddo’s students got used to her disappearing during the middle of an online lesson. Beddo, who teaches at two co-op schools, often lost her internet connection, leaving the students without a teacher.

“It got to the point where I told my students that, if I get kicked out, just hang on. I’ll get back in as soon as I can,” said Beddo, who lives in Kingston, a Kitsap County community of about 2,100 people.

Beddo’s 18-year-old daughter, meanwhile, struggled to connect to her Running Start community college classes from home. Anytime Beddo heard a heavy sigh from her daughter’s room, she knew her daughter had lost the internet, too.

Nearby, Heidi Campo and her husband were having similar problems. They struggled to log in to their business email account and their QuickBooks accounting software at the same time, making it difficult to manage their home business, a bicycle repair shop.

“I would just have to take some serious deep breaths,” said Campo, who lives less than a mile away from Beddo in Kingston.

Beddo and Campo are among hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians who lack high-speed broadband internet at home, making it difficult for them to work remotely, stream online video or log in to online classes.

It’s a problem that state lawmakers, spurred by the inequities in internet access exposed by the pandemic, are attempting to address. So far, though, the steps they’ve taken aren’t expected to help the vast majority of Washingtonians who can’t currently get online.

In April, the Legislature set aside more than $400 million in state and federal money to expand broadband access around the state. Meanwhile, a new law, House Bill 1336, will give ports and utility districts new authority to launch their own public broadband networks. Previously, state law banned ports and public utility districts from selling internet to customers.

The hope is that those government entities can now step up to connect homes in areas where private companies find it unprofitable to extend high-speed fiber optic cable, said state Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, the bill’s sponsor.

“Broadband in the 21st century is every bit as much an essential public utility as water and electricity have been for the past century,” said Hansen, explaining the need for his bill.

Yet it’s not a straight line from Hansen’s bill to broadband internet for all Washingtonians.

While some public utility districts and ports plan to start their own broadband networks, others don’t. And the more than $400 million the state has set aside to expand broadband internet, while not insignificant, covers about only a tenth of what the Washington State Broadband Office estimates it will cost to extend fiber optic cable to everyone in the state.

Russ Elliott, the director of the state’s broadband office, said about 800,000 Washington residents lack a connection to high-speed fiber internet. With the money the Legislature provided this year, the state can connect something like 30,000 of them, he estimated.

Elliott called the Legislature’s investment this year “an initial ante.”

“We didn’t go all in,” he said, adding that other states such as North Carolina, Montana and California have been looking at spending far more on broadband per capita.

That means that people like Campo and Beddo may be waiting before they can get the kind of high-speed internet connection enjoyed by other Kingston residents only a mile or two down the road.

‘Desperate’ for working internet

Beddo, Campo and their neighbors along Country Woods Lane have been trying to find solutions to their internet problems for years.

At one point, they considered forming a local utility district. That would have meant each home in the neighborhood pays a certain amount to have the Kitsap County Public Utility District run fiber optic cable to their homes.

Initially, more than half of the 52 homeowners in the area signed on to the idea, agreeing to pay $12,000 each for the connection.

When the final costs were calculated, however, it turned out the project would cost more like $17,000 per home — enough of an increase that some homeowners pulled out.

That’s when Campo and Beddo turned to state lawmakers in Olympia. Both submitted written testimony in support of Hansen’s bill, which will allow utilities and port districts to start selling broadband directly to customers.

Beddo said internet speed tests showed her download speed was sometimes as low as 0.1 megabits per second. That’s far short of the minimum speed the federal government classifies as broadband, which is 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 megabits per second for uploads. And even those speeds are likely insufficient to meet the needs of small businesses, according to a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

“You know you are desperate when you have half the people willing to spend $12,000 out of their own pocket to get internet that works,” Beddo said.

Some weigh public broadband options

Yet at the moment, Bob Hunter, general manager of Kitsap County PUD, said his organization isn’t planning to start offering broadband to customers like Beddo and Campo.

Instead, the new state law will help Kitsap County PUD in a different way: by making it eligible for more federal money. Right now, certain federal subsidies are available only to entities that have the option of selling broadband directly to customers.

With more federal money available, Hunter hopes the PUD will be able to build new broadband infrastructure, which it could then lease to private companies. Those companies in turn would be able to sell internet service to more people.

“Our intention is … to go after as much money as we can to allow our citizens access,” Hunter said.

Other PUDs and ports are considering getting into the broadband business.

In Jefferson County, the public utility district’s board of commissioners voted in May to move forward with plans to start selling broadband directly to customers.

Will O’Donnell, spokesperson for Jefferson County PUD, said most residents in the PUD’s service area on the Olympic Peninsula have little or no internet access right now.

“The biggest challenge in our rural communities is it doesn’t make sense to build out to these homes that are spread out far apart — down the valleys, up the mountains, in the middle of the forest — and we’ve got a lot of them,” O’Donnell said.

For the public utility, connecting those residents to broadband would also be financially risky, unless the utility also is able to sell broadband to customers directly, he said. Essentially, the ability to sell internet in easier-to-reach areas can defray the cost of connecting to places that are more remote.

For the time being, however, many Jefferson County residents gather at 12 Wi-Fi hotspots established by the public utility — located at places like substations and fire stations — when they need to get online. “Some of those hotspots have a car or two in the parking lot every time we drive by,” O’Donnell said.

‘Equity for our children’

Officials in Lewis County are also considering options for becoming a publicly run internet provider, said Willie Painter, spokesperson for the Lewis County PUD.

“This is really about providing equity for our children, because the majority of the students in our district simply do not have internet access at home,” said Garry Cameron, superintendent of the Winlock School District, which is located in Lewis County about 15 miles south of Centralia.

During the pandemic, the school district had to distribute about 270 mobile hotspots to ensure its students could access online classes. About 60% of the district’s 450 families, most of whom qualify as low income, couldn’t access the internet without those hotspots, Cameron said.

Sharonne Navas, executive director of the nonprofit Equity in Education Coalition, said those kinds of access issues exist all across the state — including in parts of populous King County, home to tech companies like Amazon and Microsoft. Nearly 15,000 children across King County either have no internet access or have only a dialup connection in their homes, according to a report from fall 2020.

Navas said she thinks state lawmakers may be overestimating how many government entities are interested in offering public broadband to help close those gaps. For instance, the Port of Seattle, which serves all of King County, wrote in an email to Crosscut that it isn’t looking to offer public broadband services right now. The city of Seattle, which already had the authority to offer municipal broadband, previously found that launching its own municipal broadband service wouldn’t make financial sense.

“It sort of feels like a feel-good bill, that we’re doing something — but it doesn’t have much teeth,” Navas said of HB 1336.

Utilities and ports may also be hesitating because of the confusion that surrounded HB 1336 when it was first signed into law, Navas said.

At first, some worried the measure conflicted with another broadband bill that Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law at the same time. In the end, the way the bills were processed means that HB 1336, Hansen’s bill, appears to take precedence.

Laura Loe, executive director of the Share the Cities Action Fund, said the next step for people who want public broadband is to push local governments to start offering it.

With the pandemic having so recently highlighted digital equity issues across the state, Loe said, “there’s this sense of, if not now, when?”

In the meantime, areas that lack broadband access will compete at the state and federal level for a limited number of dollars for projects.

That’s the next step for Campo and Beddo, the two Kingston residents. The Kitsap County PUD is applying for federal grant money to extend high-speed fiber to their neighborhood, but it’s not certain their project will be chosen.

Elliott, the director of the state broadband office, said even after all the broadband money that the Legislature allocated this year is spent, there will be at least $3 billion in unmet need across the state.

It’s possible a new federal infrastructure deal, which proposes at least $65 billion for expanding broadband across the country, could pay for a large share of the remaining projects in Washington. But it’s not certain what amount of money Congress will ultimately approve.

Whatever money the state gets, Elliott said, it needs to be spent on technology that won’t become outdated in a few years.

To him, that means extending fiber optic cable to as many people as possible — not experimenting with satellite technology or other options that might not meet the state’s ambitious internet speed goals.

“We are at an unprecedented crossroads where we have a lot of money being handed down,” Elliott said.

“We are doing it deliberately, we are doing it with intent. We are going to make sure we get everyone looked after.”

Crosscut is a service of Cascade Public Media, a nonprofit, public media organization. Visit crosscut.com/donate to support nonprofit, freely distributed, local journalism.
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