Connecting rural Washingtonians who lack broadband access

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Private telecommunications companies must now hold a higher standard to successfully challenge broadband subsidies intended to improve internet access to unserved and underserved communities, including many in rural Washington.

A recent rule change to how the state Board of Public Works handles objections is an important step in fixing a flawed process that allowed companies to block applicants — including tribes, districts of utilities and small municipalities – based on vague promises.

The council should continue its efforts to refine the process and help connect Washingtonians who don’t have broadband access.

Rural communities are no strangers to taking action while others drag their feet. In 1930, they won the right to create their own utilities after becoming frustrated with slow service from private power companies.

Today, they’re vying for the more than $400 million in broadband capital credit available, much of it coming from federal coronavirus recovery money. With the shift to remote learning and working, the pandemic laid bare significant gaps in broadband access across the country, and Washington was no different.

However, as communities applied for funding projects, some were stymied by objections from companies claiming that they were in the process of delivering equally fast service to these areas or had already done so. In the last round of funding, eight rural projects were rejected by the Board of Public Works, according to Crosscut reports, despite objections from companies such as Rural Wireless LLC and Comcast.

The objection process was intended to prevent overproduction of services and encourage cooperation between communities and internet service providers, officials said. In practice, an objection based on vendor claims was enough to kill an application.

The rule change, approved unanimously on April 1, means the objection process requires more than the objector’s word that they will provide equal service within two years.

“The blame lies with the opponent,” said Sheila Richardson, broadband program director for the Public Works Board. “There must be substantial evidence to support any future engagement within that 24-month period.”

This evidence may include preliminary engineering designs, relevant permits and leases, feasibility studies, invoices for project materials, or other ordering documents.

This is a good start to hold accountable objectors who claim they are providing a service. It remains to deal with the objections of a supplier who claims that he already offers a service in a given field, which allows general claims.

The Federal Communications Commission’s Fixed Broadband Deployment Map — which relies on self-reported data from providers — shows that about 280,000 people in Washington don’t have high-speed Internet access. Data collected by Microsoft indicates that 2.2 million people do not use high-speed Internet, a notable discrepancy.

“The bottom line is that we recognize that the process needs to be improved as we learn how it is used,” said Public Works Board Vice Chairman Gary Rowe. “I think what we’re doing is we’re responding to the need to improve it.”

As more of our daily lives depend on fast Internet service, the council’s timely response is critical to ensuring that rural Washingtonians are not left behind.

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