OLYMPIA — Calling high-speed Internet a “public necessity,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee highlighted Jan. 16 a plan to bring broadband service to more rural residents.
Inslee proposed spending $25 million over two years to start extending or speeding up Internet service. An association of 18 small telecommunication companies estimates that bringing broadband Internet to unserved or underserved areas in Washington would cost roughly $1 billion.
“I have to say a $25 million investment is a downpayment of what we may need, but I think the return on this investment will be profound,” Inslee said.
Under Inslee’s proposal, a state board would award grants or low-interest loans to local governments, tribes and private companies. The state program would be in addition to a USDA program to connect rural residents with broadband, a level of service defined by the Federal Communications Commission.
More than 99 percent of Washington’s 6 million urban residents had access to broadband service at a fixed location at the end of 2016, according to FCC. The percentage dropped to 92 percent for the state’s 1.2 million rural residents.
Nationwide, 24 million Americans did not have access to broadband Internet where they lived, according to the FCC report.
Inslee said he toured small rural towns last year and concluded that broadband coverage was overestimated. “I was in Stevens County (in northeast Washington), where they said there was 100 percent coverage. Well, I was there. There isn’t 100 percent coverage,” he said.
The governor also proposed spending $1.2 million over two years on a new broadband office in the Department of Commerce. Senate technology committee Chairman Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, said the federal report on internet service was insufficient and that a broadband office’s first job would be to identify gaps in service.
Lincoln County, a wheat-producing county, also has 100 percent coverage, according to the FCC report. County Commissioner Scott Hutsell said the county has spotty service in places.
“I have a gentlemen that lives out north of Davenport that tells me he’s on the ‘world, wide, wait,’” Hutsell said.
Justin Slack, mayor of Harrington, a town in Lincoln County with a population of about 400, said four city blocks have high-speed Internet. He said bought a vacant downtown building to have reliable service so he could telecommute to his job with a Seattle bank. He added a coffee shop, and residents come to check emails and download movies, he said. “While it’s flat there, there are definitely dead spots.”
Legislation setting down the rules for awarding low-interest loans and grants has not been introduced. Betty Buckley, executive director of the Washington Independent Telecommunications Association, said she expects the bill will preclude loans and grants for public entities that compete with private providers.
“Right now, the way the bill is written, we’re comfortable with it,” she said.
Inslee said rural broadband would connect agricultural entrepreneurs with more customers.
“If you’re starting a boutique cheese shop, to have access to the world to sell your cheese, that’s a big deal,” he said.
“We usually don’t compete on the low-end of the value scale in agriculture. We compete on the high-end of the scale,” Inslee said. “Having broadband is going to make sure that message gets spread around.”