Washington State Capitol

OLYMPIA — Support was strong at a Senate hearing for spending public funds to spread the benefits of high-seed internet, but many questions remain such as how much money will be available and for whose benefit.

The Inslee administration has put forward a bill to connect every home and business in Washington with internet fast-enough to meet the federal definition of broadband by 2024. A new office within the Commerce Department would oversee "central broadband planning."

The bill does not appropriate a specific amount of money. As a start, Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed $25 million over the next two years for projects, plus $1.2 million for the office.

"I certainly think we're talking about millions of dollars, if not even in the billions, but that's the purpose of the office, and they need to spec it out," said Mercer Island Democrat Lisa Wellman, prime sponsor of the legislation in the Senate.

Inslee has promoted the bill as vital for Washington's rural residents and businesses, including agriculture. The bill's supporters include the Washington Farm Bureau, which rates passing the legislation a high priority for this session.

Under Senate Bill 5511 and the identical House Bill 1498, local governments, ports, public utility districts, tribes and private businesses could apply for grants or loans to provide high-speed internet to unserved and underserved areas. Testimony at House and Senate hearings suggests competition for the money would be robust.

The bill defines "unserved" areas as "lacking access" to internet speeds of 25 megabits per second, a speed fast enough to stream movies in "ultra high-definition" quality, according to Netflix. "Underserved" is defined as areas lacking "adequate" access to such speeds.

The speed would be faster than the 5 megabits per second that Netflix recommends for high-definition quality.

Under the bill, government internet projects could compete with private companies in areas deemed underserved.

Association of Washington Business director of government relations Mike Ennis said the organization supports the thrust of the bill, but funds should be directed to places without internet. "This bill seems to focus more on underserved rather than unserved," he said.

The Federal Communications Commission estimates 99 percent of Washington's 6 million urban residents and 92 percent of rural residents have access to high-speed internet at their homes or businesses. The Washington Independent Telecommunications Association estimates connecting the rest would cost approximately $1 billion.

The bill looks beyond that.

By 2026, the goal would be for every Washington community to have at least one "anchor institution," such as a school, hospital, library or government office, connected to an internet speed of 1 gigabit per second. According to a Verizon website, "Gigabit broadband is in a league of its own — 100 people can be connected and performing tasks at the same time."

By 2028, the goal would be for all Washington businesses and homes to have access to at least one internet service provider that offers speeds of 150 megabits per second. There is no cost estimate for that.

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