Washington is in for a treat as President Joe Biden’s newly announced $100-billion infrastructure plan is expected to boost the state’s crusade of turning broadband service into a public utility. Biden’s proposed infrastructure project is said to focus on supporting local governments and non-profit organizations that are committed to serving communities in establishing their own broadband networks.
Due to lack of funding and some regulatory issues, only a few cities in Washington have succeeded in carrying out government-operated broadband services. With Biden’s infrastructure plan in the works along with the state’s continuous effort, many Washington residents have high hopes of finally being able to use public broadband.
Washington’s past and present efforts
In a study published by the City of Seattle in 2015, the city has concluded that without external funding, the plan of building public broadband would not be feasible. In 2013, Seattle also tried to reach out to Gigabit Squared, a Cincinnati-based company that agreed to provide thousands of Seattle residents with their internet service. However, the agreement did not push through after the company failed to raise funds for the implementation of high-speed broadband service in 14 neighborhoods due to the city’s inert fiber network.
Tacoma, another city in Washington also suffered financially over the years of relying on Click! Network in the operation of the city’s internet service. Tacoma Public Utilities is currently in the process of switching the operation of the city’s internet service to a private company.
Anacortes seems to have the upper hand relative to other Washington cities as it eyes several potential funding opportunities. While waiting for the rollout of Biden’s plan, the city has managed to secure various federal funding and is currently relying on subscription revenues. Currently, the city’s broadband provider is serving 650 customers and just over 1,300 on the waitlist.
All hands on deck
Eliminating hurdles that could interfere with the implementation of government-operated broadband services is one of the priorities of state-level lawmakers. Two bills are currently in the works to reach the state legislature. These bills are set to make it easier for small cities to provide broadband service directly to their residents by authorizing public utilities to charge for internet service. The federal infrastructure plan shares the same priority as Biden pledges to ease the competition against local governments and private providers.
Laura Loe, the executive director of Share the Cities, a non-profit organization that also advocates for public broadband, noted that the efforts of the local and federal government, when combined together, will present public entities with a great opportunity to receive external funding.
How much of the proposed infrastructure funds will be allocated to areas with existing broadband providers? The answer is not certain yet, given that most of rural America does not even have broadband access.
The pandemic has amplified the need for reliable and affordable broadband service, especially for workers and students who are forced to work and learn remotely. In a fact sheet on the infrastructure project, the White House noted its concern regarding the struggles of students to go online while studying from home. These daily struggles are resulting in poor learning and social isolation.
However, these cold hard facts are not enough to assure the success of Biden’s infrastructure plan. Most private broadband providers are opposing the administration’s plan, calling it the “wrong approach.”
This leaves the Washington state bills in a better position of being approved. On the other hand, the federal infrastructure plan is set to go through the eye of the needle as it faces many objections from both the private broadband industry and the Republicans.