Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Thurston County PUD, local internet, net neutrality and the next fight

A little while back a group of citizens took on Puget Sound Energy to bring power to the people. Literally, they wanted to have our local public utility district, which up to now is limited to providing water to a small portion of the county, into the electricity business.

They lost. Big.

Despite a horrific record of bringing the county back online after a winter storm months before, the public electricity drive was outspent and lost at the polls. I voted yes. I like the idea of public power.

But, the entire time I thought that maybe they were fighting the last campaign. Seriously, public power is an old issue.

What is the next issue that is like what electricity was in the 1930s through the 1950s? The internet.

Right now, we're seeing internet service providers show why there's a massive difference between the values corporations bring, compared to government. Or, businesses that are required to support the public trust.

Net neutrality, providing equal access to all data, not discriminating based on the content providers ability to pay, is like the electrical access issue of the 1930s. And, watching the tiered internet we now seeing created, the public in Washington State can seem to provide their own home grown version of net neutrality.

Public utility districts have been able to for years get into the broadband business. Right now they can become wholesale providers to local companies that provide their own retail plugins. This isn't ideal, but at least it gets us part of the way there. I would assume that local PUDs could write net neutrality into their contracts. Or, if a certain bill passed, PUDs could get directly into the retail business and ensure net neutrality.

There seems to be a lot of room in this discussion. Maybe even the cities could join with the PUD:

Still, the city of Edmonds was forced to seek a state attorney general’s opinion in 2003 to offer broadband as a public service. In response to Rep. Jeff Morris of the 40th District, the attorney general said “First-class and code cities and charter counties may offer telecommunications services to their residents to the extent not specifically barred by state statute.”

Lacey, Olympia and Tumwater have all laid fiber optics in city-owned conduits covering varying proportions of each jurisdiction, which they use primarily for internal data and communications. And all three cities share access with the state Department of Transportation.

By extending fiber optic networks throughout the metro area, the three cities could open their infrastructure to private companies and, in turn, provide equitable Internet access to families wanting to Skype with loved ones across the country, or download a movie on family night.
One last way local governments could ensure equal access would be through free public wifi. The Kitsap PUD has already deployed local free wifi in Poulsbo. Wifi is also a way to get around the direct access to the public barrier PUDs have experienced:
...the state legislature erected barriers that derailed the full project by revoking PUD authority to offer direct retail services. To this day, public utility districts are required to wholesale access, which rarely creates enough revenue to justify the initial cost of building networks. Community leaders knew that wholesale-only models carry more risk because they split an already tight revenue stream. With the change in state law, the community re-evaluated the fiber network plan.

Rather than abandon the plan, Poulsbo and the PUD adjusted it to use the existing fiber assets. They created the wireless mesh pilot project that went live in Poulsbo in November 2012. They funded the project with a Local Improvement District (LID) loan from the State of Washington. LID works with specific geographic areas; the neighbors in an area collaborate to form each district. The City heads up the project by handling the design, financing, and construction of the improvements, selling bonds for financing. The property owners in the geographic area payback the bonds through special assessments over 10 or 20 years.
From what I can tell from meeting minutes from last year, the Thurston PUD has been looking into broadband. No recent updates though.

I think the PUD should go back out and try to expand their services beyond water. I think they should work with the cities, build broadband and start putting up wifi antennas. The next find isn't power, the next fight is information. The internet is a basic right, it should be a public resource, it should be fair and the Thurston PUD can help that happen. 

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1 comment:

Mojourner said...

Thanks for this article. I recently attended a City of Olympia meeting seeking community input on developing infrastructure for the Martin Road urban corridor. When I suggested that in addition to transportation, we need to think of info infrastructure, people were supportive, but clearly not many of them had been thinking about it. Many of us are tired of paying a monopoly, and a municipal or PUD solution is in reach.
But it will never happen if people don't start agitating. So, thanks for raising awareness of this problem and potential solutions.