Thursday, January 15, 2015

Let's bring HB 1711 back from the dead and unleash municipal broadband in Washington

A couple of days ago, the White House called out 19 state laws that inhibit local governments from tearing down barriers to internet access. Embarrassingly, one of those laws is in Washington State. Sprinkled throughout our RCWs are specific prohibitions preventing local governments (like PUDs or port districts) from selling internet access directly to consumers.

While local governments can set up internet networks, they have to find a middleman (like a local ISP) to take a cut and then sell to consumers. These are the same customers that (as taxpayers) are paying for the backbone of these networks anyway.

While a few local PUDs are getting around these prohibitions by providing free public wifi, this retail prohibition is a major stumbling block to broadband access in Washington State.

Now, President Obama wants it gone. And, it turns out that in 2011 a handful of Washington legislators wanted it gone too. HB 1711 would have erased the prohibitions to local governments to provide internet access to their citizens. The bill saw public hearings during the 2011 and 2012 legislative sessions. But, it never even received a vote out of committee.

Muninetworks wrote a nice roundup of who opposed the bill then:
The bill's opponents may be separated into two groups. The first is the usual gang of big, absentee corporations like CenturyLink, Frontier, and Comcast that typically oppose any legislation that could create competition to their services. They have a ton of lobbying power and very little desire or capacity to solve the rural broadband problem in Washington state. 
The second group is more interesting. It is a collection of local businesses that are actually rooted in the community. Many are ISPs that operate on existing wholesale-only networks owned by public utility districts. They are afraid of either being kicked off the network or having to compete against the PUD itself in provisioning services. These are certainly legitimate fears. 
Unfortunately, the small providers are also limited in the capacity to build the necessary networks needed to bring modern connections to everyone in the state. Offering service on an existing PUD network requires far less capital than building their own network. If the state wants to move toward a Washington where all residents and businesses have fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet, it has to risk upsetting the small ISPs. They do not have the capacity to connect rural Washington; the public utility districts and local governments have not just the capacity, but also the responsibility. It is time for the state to stop making it all but impossible for them to do so.
But, now the debate has changed. It isn't just an argument about whether areas can be served by internet providers. Even in cases where a local ISP provides access to publicly provided infrastructure (not even considered data on cell phones and satellite internet), people are getting online. Largely.

The debate now is about net neutrality. Corporate providers are throttling speeds, giving preference to the data they want to see go through. This is antithetical to the idea of the free flow of information in our country.

We have free public libraries and an open public postal service because information has to flow in a democracy. In Washington, we don't have to wait for the FCC to do the right thing. We can do it right now by bringing the ideas behind HB 1711 back.

Previous posts:
Olympia and Thurston should follow Poulsbo and Kitsap's lead (at the very least) and what your PUD candidates think about that

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

1 comment:

Steve Owens (CISSP) said...

I for one would like to see Gigabit ethernet available to all homes in Thurston county. Google is tied up with it's major urban centers and will not be expanding into our area for at least 10 years. That is a long time to wait. We should leverage the fiber we do have in order to create better paying jobs in the Thurston County area.