Sunday, January 24, 2021

Rural broadband and the policy cleave in Republican politics


Or, how did a socialist candidate win the most conservative precinct in Thurston County?

There is a lot of talk about the just now starting civil war within the ranks or Republicans. My favorite example of this is the King County Republican chair demanding the Mainstream Republicans remove "Republican" from their name. But however this personality driven battle ends up, there is at least one actual policy dispute that I think could also cleave the Republican Party, at least here in Washington.

The policy question about how to expand broadband internet into underserved rural areas has been an open question for (at the very least) ten years. I've been following the debate for at least that long. And a government sponsored solution seems to finally be getting a serious hearing in the legislature this year. HB 1336 would allow locally-based Public Utility Districts to offer direct retail broadband to customers. This is a major step in Washington, where currently PUDs are limited to only wholesale service. Leaving the last step of direct tie in from individual customers to the private market. 

This has led to some situations like Grant County, where the PUD has a strong background network and a strong stable of mom-and-pop internet providers that aren't Comcast or CenturyLink. But more of Washington is limited to the two major private and corporate providers. 

But what does this have to do with politics and the Republican Party specifically? 

I'll answer than in three parts:

First: Andrew Saturn was a deeply flawed candidate who had one good idea that I agreed with. He wanted to turn the Thurston County PUD into a broadband provider. A bit of house-cleaning, I ran against Saturn for Democratic Party PCO and spoke out against his problematic behavior back a few years ago. But that doesn't mean I didn't like the idea of providing internet access through the PUD.

Anyway, as both active in the Democratic Party and Socialist organizations, Saturn fell to the far left of politics in Thurston County. But after all the votes were counted, a weird pattern emerged. Saturn won only one precinct in Olympia, lost the county's most dependably left-leaning precinct (College), but he did win the opposite of College. The most dependably and extreme conservative precinct in Thurston County is Zenkner Valley, and Saturn won that precinct by an almost 2 to 1 vote. 

A few things fell into place for this to happen:

1. The PUD race was non-partisan. So, normal branding effects of a partisan label didn't apply. Saturn's opponent didn't run with a D next to her name and Saturn didn't run with a Democratic label or Socialist, so voters were able to judge on other things.

2.Saturn's opponent was an active member of the local Democratic Party and when his campaign did go sideways, it did in relation to how he worked with local Democrats (to put it lightly). 

3. Lastly, I think people in the rural areas really did want the good internet. Zenkner Valley wasn't the only rural precinct he won. In fact out of the 19 he did win, only two were inside Olympia or Lacey. And Zenkner Valley, the last precinct to the south before you hit Lewis County, is one of those remote places that likely isn't going to get a corporation beating down its door to provide broadband.

Let's move on to the next race. Just this last year, Bobby Jackson lost to Lindsey Pollock for one of the three Lewis County commissioner seats last November. On the surface, this race seemed to be about a forward thinking conservative that was concerned about good government and jobs (Pollock) vs. a conservative that thought God is the one pulling the strings on global warming (Jackson). But, Pollock also made broadband access part of her campaign.

Both new county commissioner's in Lewis County have made internet access into an economic development issue, but Pollock goes a lot further.

In a letter to the editor before she was an official candidate, Pollock pointed directly at the PUD as local internet provider solution:

I recently attended a Baw Faw Grange meeting in Boistfort where the topic was lack of rural access to high speed Internet.

This is a subject close to my heart as I experience the problem frequently in my Winlock community.

One of the attendees, Mary Mallonee, asked two of the best questions: “Isn’t Internet service a utility? Why can’t we have service like we get from the PUD?”


A representative from the PUD was present and explained that state law prevents our PUD from providing us “last mile” service.

Other speakers said that they had spoken to legislators who advised them that the private communication companies would spend whatever it takes to lobby and litigate against having to serve underserved areas or allow public entities such as our PUD to provide such service.

That answer should not stand.

 

In fact, please click the link and read Pollock's entire letter. It is a populist political masterpiece. It clearly points on the direct economic role that broadband internet access serves today:


In the nineteenth century prosperity required access to railroads. In the twentieth century paved roads became a necessity.

Today the need is communication. Those who have it prosper. Those who don’t, wither.


She also presents a clear-eyed and cool-headed political analysis of how and why a coalition of pro-broadband activists would come together:


All across the state there are counties and communities just like us who are not being served creating a “Have, Have Not” dynamic.

However, we are not without options. The “Have Not” counties have commissioners, Legislators, and Congressional representatives. The need for high speed Internet extends beyond jurisdictional and political party lines. If we work together with our fellow “Have Nots,” we should be able solve this problem.

The point is not to take “no” for an answer.

 

This is a cogent, populist and policy-based vision that was based on the actual every day lives of rural people. I often see these rural policy debates in the frame of paying a premium in terms of transportation costs or lower level of services. I also am sensitive to the lower efficiencies of rural areas being able to actually pay for their own roads and fire service

I'm also reading a lot about density politics and how they've led us to where we are.

Which leads us back to today and the "Public Broadband Act." In the Republican intraparty debate, you have a sponsor from Grant County who sees the benefit of broadband in his rural community. Rep. Alex Ybarra is a Republican and an engineer and an advocate for bringing broadband to all of Washington:


We knew prior to (COVID) that most rural areas are in need of broadband. It’s just a matter of how you get it out there. For years and years, we’ve been hoping that the Comcasts of the world would get it out there, but it wasn’t feasible for them to do that.


A member of his own caucus, Rep Vicki Kraft, has other thoughts:


Those are some of the potential challenges with supply and demand if there’s only one provider, the supplier, they have the control over what the price is. So I recognize that. My other challenge though is subsidizing everything through the government, which is socialism. I’m not interested in that within an American economy. Our economy should be subsidized by all the taxpayers, and that is what we’re seeing in a very large way right now.

... 

This is probably back to your point about the terminology. It’s socialism. Subsidizing health care and broadband, or anything, the more you do it, even if it’s a good cause. That’s what socialism is; it’s when more taxpayer money goes to offset true supply and demand.


There is part of me that is quietly cheering Rep. Kraft's obstinacy. That is she wants to eschew good government that provides needed services to her taxpayers, then fine. That's what you get for moving out to the sticks. Feel free to eschew other things like libraries, schools, roads and public hospitals. It is pretty obvious, the more they stand in the way of reasonable policy to expand broadband into rural areas, the more they're dooming those rural areas economically. 

But, obviously I'm actually rooting for Rep. Ybarra and I hope he wins. There is an interesting discussion at the end of this podcast episode about political polarization and how density and economic health tends to determine politics in general. The nut of it is that counties that have voted Democratic for president are getting more dense in recent elections, but are also representing more of the economy. Conversely, Republican presidential counties are becoming more numerous, emptier and represent continually poorer communities. 

This has created, the theory goes, a much deeper divide in American politics than in the past. This is the divide that we've all been feeling in our social media feeds, but also the divide that I assume is being created in the Republican Party.

One solution mentioned in the podcast is investment in rural areas. Instead of assuming the richer/denser trend is determinative, doing small things to expand the economic base in rural areas. Things like making sure broadband access is available to everyone. 

The following discussion is about community colleges and branch campuses from the above linked podcast:



...the most important thing along these lines is just getting people to have more proximity, is one, making it easier for people in small towns to get post-secondary education. So I think there ought to be more community colleges. There ought to be a lot of them that are close to people. There ought to be more universities, more state universities, more branch campuses, right? Getting people to school.

...

And so if you make education a lot easier for rural, small town people, just the process of becoming educated opens you up a little bit to the world. It tends to make you a little bit more curious about the things you’ve learned about. “Maybe I do want to go on a trip to Chicago,” because it’s amazing how many people in, say, rural Illinois have never been to Chicago, and it’s two hours away, right? And that kind of thing is really, really, really important. And it’s not you’re trying to propagandize them into becoming critical race theorists at the big liberal university. It really is just the basic stuff. You’re teaching people about the world. You’re broadening their horizons a little bit.


And while they're talking about community and state college branch campuses, they might as well be talking about equitable school funding, libraries and broadband internet. Each are vital for an equitable economy. And if Republicans are interested in expanding the economy for the people they represent, broadband seems like a good place to start. 

We've already seen that rural conservative voters will choose a closeted socialist over a mainstream Democrat if he talks about government-funded broadband. Rural county voters will also choose one Republican over an incumbent Republican if she says the same thing. Republican voters have already told use what they want. Now it is worth seeing now if Republicans can united behind one of their own to see if they can make a modest step to allow a small unit of government make a big different in their communities. 

Last point here on the nature of the policy solution Ybarra (and the socialist Saturn) is proposing: PUDs are small, local governments, no larger than a county. They sometimes provide electricity, but sometimes they provide a smattering of water services. Ybarra's solution is not a statewide broadband agency to act as a public option Comcast. It is for every community to choose to see if they want their PUD to act as a public option Comcast. If small government Republicans were to choose one solution, the closest to the people would seem like a good idea.

2 comments:

Thad Curtz said...

I think the bill is more ambitious than just allowing PUDs to do rural broadband. It would also authorize the PUDs to provide service by contract to tribes and to cities, towns, code cities, and counties; it also expands the current authority of ports to provide wholesale telecommunications services in or outside their districts to include retail services. (There's a summary at the blog I do about climate related bills in the session, at https://www.waclimateleg.info/hb1336/.

The bill's scheduled for a hearing in the House Committee on Community & Economic Development; this coming Tuesday, January 26th at 10:00 AM. (You can register your support or opposition to it, submit a comment for the hearing, or sign up to actually testify via Zoom at https://app.leg.wa.gov/csiremote/house, the Legislature's new page for remote testimony.)

Unknown said...

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