The coronavirus pandemic has clearly demonstrated the importance of broadband internet access. For students engaged in remote learning and adults working from home and isolated retirees simply trying to remain connected to the world, fast and reliable service has been a lifeline.
For too many Washington residents, particularly in rural areas, that service is unavailable or prohibitively expensive. Broad measures at both the state and federal levels are necessary to make high-speed internet accessible for everybody.
Alas, the Legislature this year may have made the situation more untenable. Two pieces of legislation — House Bill 1336 and Senate Bill 5383 — that give public utility districts and ports the authority to offer broadband internet were passed and signed into law. The idea is to allow public entities to provide service in remote areas where private companies do not operate because it is not cost effective.
One problem is that the bills might conflict. The House bill provides broader authority, allowing public entities to serve areas already served by private companies, such as CenturyLink or Comcast.
Another problem is that Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bills simultaneously last week — one with his right hand and one with his left. Crosscut reports: “Confusion is mounting about whether the two laws can coexist. And that debate may end up in court. … If the bills do conflict with one another, the order in which they were signed into law becomes of paramount importance. In theory, the last bill signed would take precedence over the other.”
The conflict adds unnecessary difficulty to a pressing situation. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 735,000 Washington residents — roughly 10 percent of the population — do not have internet access in their homes; an additional 500,000 rely on limited cellphone data plans, and thousands more still use slower dial-up services.
For a state that is home to some of the world’s largest and most innovative high-tech companies, this is unacceptable. Inslee could have avoided confusion by signing one bill and vetoing the other.
Nationally, the situation is not much different. In 2010, the Federal Communications Commission declared that every American should have access to broadband service by 2020; but an estimated 42 million Americans remain without access, and an additional 100 million cannot afford to hook into local service. A Microsoft study last year determined that half the country was not connecting at broadband speed.
Broadband access is essential for equal access to education, jobs, health care and other linchpins of modern society. It also is essential to economic growth and productivity, and President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal calls for $100 billion in digital investments with a goal of making broadband access universal.
Last week, the FCC launched a federal plan to assist low-income households with monthly internet bills. But discounts are available only through providers that choose to offer them, and they will expire six months after the end of the pandemic. In addition, schools and libraries can benefit from a $7 billion infusion for another FCC program, one championed by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.
Patchwork solutions, however, cannot close America’s digital divide. Nor can they keep up with China, where roughly 90 percent of the 1 billion internet users have broadband access.
Vast investments and creative solutions are necessary, not confusion promulgated by legislators and Gov. Inslee.