A bill enabling public utility districts (PUDs) and port districts to provide broadband internet directly to Washingtonians received broad support from many in Lewis County earlier this year. Representatives from the Port of Chehalis, Valley View Health Center, Lewis County PUD and the Board of County Commissioners all argued that broadband should be treated like a utility, and that the bill would be a game changer for rural communities.
So why did all four District 19 and District 20 representatives vote against the legislation?
Supporters of House Bill 1336 have argued that private industry had its shot to serve rural customers and have so far failed. They’ve also pointed to the 1930s, when Washington similarly gave PUDs the ability to provide electricity directly to customers after private industry struggled to connect rural communities.
But for Rep. Peter Abbarno, R-Centralia, his “no” vote stemmed from concerns over “unfair competition” where PUDs could have an advantage over private telecommunication companies.
“There are a lot of small telecommunication businesses that are doing amazing work in our community, and I believe that supporting their work and supporting the work of PUDs and infrastructure should be the focus,” he said in a floor debate last month, before the bill was passed to the Senate, with five Republicans crossing party lines.
The first-term representative argued that building the infrastructure should be the state’s priority, and that giving retail authority to local public entities “is a second and third phase, if we do reach that phase.”
The notion that private companies are on their way to solving what has repeatedly been billed as a crisis in rural Washington is contested. Port of Chehalis CEO Randy Mueller, for example, told lawmakers in public testimony that “if there was a profit to be made, we all know (private industry) would have gone and made that profit by now.”
But Abbarno disagrees.
“I don’t know if I would say private industry has had their shot,” he said Thursday. “I think there’s going to be a lot of opportunity for everyone to have a role in the broadband arena.”
In the next year or two, Abbarno expects a major influx of state funds to expand broadband infrastructure, at which point the private or public sector could begin providing service to rural, isolated households. The difference this year, he said, is that “for the first time in a long time, everyone’s focusing on rural broadband.”
In public testimony, some PUD managers told lawmakers that HB 1336 would allow local governments to build out that infrastructure by freeing up federal funding. But from Abbarno’s perspective, that may be “putting the cart before the horse.”
“I mean, I don't think anybody knows what’s coming from the federal side … I can’t comment on whether or not it’s going to unlock (federal funding) or not. I hope it does,” he said.
Abbarno’s counterpart, Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, has similar concerns about allowing local governments to compete with the private sector.
“I’ve heard from a lot of constituents over the years … who have said ‘no, we don’t want government doing this, this should be done by the private sector,’” he said, pointing to ToledoTel as one success story in the private sector.
PUDs assuming they can build out broadband infrastructure, Orcutt argued, is unrealistic. Additionally, he fears that HB 1336 could lead to public entities competing with each other. Under the bill, port districts would also be given retail authority.
“Where are the protections in the bill to prevent that from happening?” he said.
In District 19, Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen said his “no” vote was due to his support for a different, better bill in the Senate — SB 5383.
The legislation has already been lobbed over to the House, having received bipartisan support, and would do something similar to HB 1336, with one key difference: a challenge process would be provided to private companies.
Telecommunication companies could be given 30 days to object to a PUD project if they believe it would “result in overbuild.”
While opponents balked at the challenge process, equating it to a veto power, Walsh contends it would provide a “check and balance.”
“I think the Senate bill describes a much more market-responsive path,” he said. “It’s likely to keep the projects that are undertaken more cost-effective or efficient by having that option there.”