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This week’s community broadband state legislative roundup revisits and provides updates on important bills moving through the state legislatures in Washington, Oklahoma, and California.
The State Scene
We’ve been closely covering S.B. 5383 and H.B. 1336, two bills in Washington state that would give Public Utilities Districts (PUDs) and port districts the authority to offer retail telecommunications services.
Our initial coverage pointed out shortcomings in S.B. 5383. The bill originally contained a preemption clause that gave private Internet Service Providers (ISPs) the power to reject PUDs’ and ports’ project proposals in areas where incumbent ISPs claim they plan to expand service within six months.
Since our last reporting on this piece of legislation, the bill was amended by the State House Community and Economic Development Committee, removing the veto authority initially given to existing ISPs. However, a new provision favoring incumbent cable ISPs was also added, which would prohibit a PUD or port from providing retail Internet services in an area where an existing provider offers service at a minimum of 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) download speed and 20 Mbps upload speed. The minimum speed requirements of this provision would be increased to stay consistent with Washington’s state definition of broadband.
The Committee also amended the bill to allow PUDs and ports to provide retail services in served areas, but only when building to reach an unserved region.
A California ballot initiative would empower voters to build their own Internet access solutions.
The Oklahoma House sends seven broadband bills to Senate.
New York and North Carolina initiate statewide digital inclusion programs.
Virginia is second state to pass comprehensive privacy legislation.
See the bottom of this post for some broadband-related job openings.
The State Scene
California Legislation Could Lead To Massive Investments in Public Broadband
As lawmakers in the Golden State look to rectify a reputation of having one of the highest student populations without Internet connectivity, bills aiming to expand access to 98 percent of California households by increasing investments in public broadband infrastructure were launched early in California’s legislative session.
Though there are several other bills pertaining to broadband that have been introduced in Sacramento, we focus on these four because, if passed, they would have the biggest impact on municipal networks.
S.B. 4, sponsored by State Sen. Lena Gonzalez, D-33, would create a new state-backed bond program, enabling local governments to finance more than $1 billion in public infrastructure projects through bond issuances. The low-interest debt for the projects could be repaid over multiple decades.
Pending Bills In Washington Legislature Aim To Allow Public Utility Districts to Partake in Retail Broadband Market
Though Washington is home to one of the nation’s fastest growing tech hubs, many communities throughout the state lack adequate broadband infrastructure. The stark divide between those Washingtonians with reliable home broadband connections, and those without, became especially relevant last year, when many were forced to rely on their home Internet access for work, school, health, socialization, and much more.
A year into the pandemic, it seems lawmakers in Olympia are finally waking up to the connectivity issues currently plaguing the state. In January, bills aiming to advance broadband connectivity by allowing public entities to participate in the retail broadband market were presented in the House and Senate of the Washington State Legislature. The two bills have both cleared their respective chambers, and are waiting to be heard in committees of the opposite legislative chamber.
Discussions surrounding the two bills will continue on March 11th, when Washington’s Senate Energy Committee is set to hold a hearing for House Bill 1336, one of two bills being considered (the other is Senate Bill 5383).
Both bills aim to grant public entities, such as Public Utility Districts (PUDs) and ports, the authority to operate as Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Currently PUDs and ports can build broadband networks but must offer wholesale access to private ISPs, and are prohibited from offering direct retail services to residents and businesses. The bills being considered now would allow them to deliver Internet access to Washington residents without a charter or third-party business overseeing network management operations.
While the bills are similar, they possess important differences. At the heart of the dispute between the two proposed laws is a preemption clause included in Senate Bill 5383, sponsored by State Sen. Lisa Wellman.
Idaho is better known for producing potatoes than the state of Washington. But actually, it’s the 2,800 square miles (an area about twice the size of Rhode Island) within Grant County in central Washington that grows more spuds per acre than any county in the United States.
As you might expect, the Grant County Public Utility District (PUD) has a long history of supporting the region’s potato farmers. But for the past 20 years, the county-owned utility has been planting more than potatoes in the fertile soil of the Evergreen State, the benefits of which are being enjoyed by county residents on and off the farm.
Building a Fiber Foundation
In early 2000, Grant County PUD built an open access fiber optic network, allowing multiple local Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to compete in delivering Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) service to the county’s 97,700 residents. After investing $182 million to bring high-performance Internet connectivity to 75% of the county, over the past several years the utility has been working to expand the network to cover the remaining 25% into the most rural parts of the Grant County PUD service area.
In our year-end roundup and prediction show on the Community Broadband Bits podcast last month, the more optimistic members of the team predicted that 2021 would see some states remove barriers to municipal broadband.
It looks like in a few places momentum might be headed in that direction. Last week we wrote about a bill in Arkansas that would remove almost all barriers in the state, allowing political subdivisions and consolidated utility districts to pursue projects on their own and without external grants.
New legislation in Washington looks similarly promising. On Thursday, January 21st, House Bill 1336 was introduced [pdf], removing specific barriers which currently prevent Public Utility Districts (PUDs) from delivering broadband service on a retail basis. Currently, PUDs are only able to offer unrestricted broadband on a wholesale basis through a dark fiber or open access network. Under certain conditions PUDs can offer retail service, but only if an existing Internet Service Provider (ISP) leasing that PUD infrastructure ceases operations, and even then, they are only allowed to do so as long as no other private ISP steps up to offer retail service. In the interim, PUDs can provide service for a maximum of five months and must, within thirty days, begin the process of finding a replacement.
The new law removes that barrier, and not only allows PUDs to construct and operate retail broadband networks inside their existing territory, but outside as well. In addition, it establishes that PUDs can work with federally recognized tribes to construct infrastructure.
The co-sponsors of the bill have staked out different rationales for removing the restrictions, with Drew Hansen calling for broadband to operate as a public utility and Alex Ybarra more concerned with the unconnected pockets of Washingtonians left by the private ISPs. Bill co-sponsor Alex Ybarra told the Washington State Wire:
As the novel coronavirus has spread across the United States, so too have efforts to bring Internet access to digitally disconnected households during a time of nationwide social distancing. Washington and Massachusetts are on different coasts, but both states are working with publicly owned broadband networks to deploy emergency Wi-Fi hotspots in underserved communities in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In Washington, a state-led initiative is deploying hundreds of new Wi-Fi access points with the help of community networks, including Northwest Open Access Network (NoaNet), a statewide middle-mile network, and several Public Utility Districts (PUDs). And on the other side of the country, Massachusetts has enlisted the help of municipal network Whip City Fiber to establish Wi-Fi hotspots in communities with poor connectivity.
The drive-up public hotspots will allow residents of both states to complete online school assignments, apply for unemployment insurance, and connect with healthcare providers, among other essential tasks.
“We’ve all been in a position where we understand to connect to the world during this really challenging time, Wi-Fi is essential,” said Dr. Lisa Brown, Director of the Washington Department of Commerce, during a livestreamed launch of the state Wi-Fi initiative.
Washington Partners with PUDs for Wi-Fi
Grays Harbor Public Utility District (PUD) recently received a $50,000 Washington state grant to conduct a feasibility study in order to determine the best route for expansion of their open access broadband infrastructure into Oakville and the Chehalis Indian Reservation. Both areas are considered underserved and some areas in the region have no Internet service available to residents or businesses.
The Reasons Are There
The Commerce Department’s Public Works Board awarded the $50,000 grant and eight other grants for eight other feasibility studies around the state. The funds will likely pay for the entire study and, according to director of PUD Core Service Rod Hanny, will determine the best route for a fiber line and identify "right-of-way issues, permitting requirements, construction costs, and whether the project would fit the needs of the communities and the utility itself."
Officials at the PUD say that they've received many requests from residents and businesses in the area to establish fiber infrastructure for Internet access. The PUD also wants to put fiber in place in order to improve other utility operations. Currently a substation in the area is monitored via satellite and a fiber connection would be create a more reliable method of communication. If the feasibility study reveals that a project would be a beneficial investment for the region, the project would take roughly a year to complete.
Open access networks offer opportunities for competition and innovation that networks owned and operated by one entity can’t provide. We've written about open access networks owned, operated, and funded by public entities; now private investors are increasingly attracted to these competitive, fiber optic environments.
Over time, American Internet access subscribers have become accustomed to the idea that options are limited because large, corporate Internet access providers have positioned themselves so as not to compete with one other. In areas where local communities have deployed open access models, such as in Ammon, Idaho, or in places with regional open access networks, like UTOPIA Fiber in Utah and the many Public Utility District networks (PUDs) in the state of Washington, those connecting to the network have benefitted from ISP choice and access to high-quality connectivity.
In Europe and Asia, open access models appear more regularly, but in the U.S., the open access arrangement has primarily been adopted by local governments offering wholesale service to ISPs. Often they do so as a way to comport with state law. In the past few years, however, private companies and investment firms have seen the potential of open access fiber optic infrastructure in the U.S. For example, SiFi Networks announced a project in Fullerton, California, earlier this year with plans to establish similar infrastructure projects in other communities.
We recently touched base with Kelly Ryan, CEO of iFiber Communications, an Internet service provider that operates via open access networks owned and operated by PUDs in Washington. We also talked with James Wagar, Managing Director of Thomas Capital Group, who has eyes on open access fiber optic network projects.
The Finance Piece
Grays Harbor County Public Utility District (PUD) in Washington state has just finished a fiber optic network to local schools and a local industrial park. The county has been strapped for Internet access, and this network is the first step in developing better connectivity to many of the homes and businesses along the route. Elected officials are also exploring new ways to encourage last mile connectivity.
The Need for Internet Access
The options for high-speed Internet access are limited in Grays Harbor County, Washington. About 74,000 people live in there, and about 78 percent of the population reports having some form of Internet access at home, but it's likely those that live in the rural areas don't have access to "broadband" as defined as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
The FCC defines broadband as 25 Mbps (download) and 3 Mbps (upload) that meets certain other technical standards. While satellite Internet access continues to improve, satellite connectivity is still expensive, unreliable, and describing it as "broadband" is a stretch.
The FCC's data paints the situation in Grays Harbor County as similar to other areas where those living in rural areas have poor or no Internet access and many within small- or medium-sized towns have little or no choice. About 13 percent of the population have no access to broadband, and another 53 percent live under broadband monopoly. This means there is only a single provider for those people. Approximately 27 percent have a choice, but it is limited to two providers and typically between competing technologies, such as cable and DSL.
Washington's Douglas County Community Network (DCCN) began as a way to improve the local Public Utility District’s electric system; construction of the network started in the late 1990s. Two decades later, people living in some of the state's smallest communities have access to fast, affordable, reliable connectivity that equals their neighbors in the county's busy cities through the publicly owned fiber network.
Restrictions Didn't Stop Douglas County PUD
Due to Washington state restrictions, the Douglas County Public Utility District (DCPUD) and other PUDs cannot offer telecommunications services directly to the general public; they can only provide wholesale service. In Douglas County, private providers deliver Internet access, voice, and video to subscribers in both rural communities and more densely populated areas. Six different providers offer a range of services via the open access network. The DCPUD also offers other services, including dark fiber, that businesses find useful and has invested in a carrier grade colocation facility in East Wenatchee.
The concept for the DCCN came about when the utility was searching for a way to upgrade their existing microwave system that they used for power control. With microwave, they would only have the ability to connect point A to point B, but with fiber, the DCPUD could connect points between substations. Around this same time, leaders at the DCPUD were learning of the growing interest in excess capacity from municipal electric utility fiber optic networks for broadband. At the time, communities that knew they would not be served by the large corporate ISPs were those investing in fiber infrastructure.
“That was us,” says DCCN Coordinator Ben Carter. “They were telling us that they weren’t going to roll broadband out … Obviously, the business decision makes itself.” Rather than bringing a new service to a place where the largest population center was only around 12,000 in 2000, corporate Internet access companies were aiming for large cities such as Seattle and Portland.