Erika Gebhardt / The Everyday World
When the 2022 Washington state legislative session adjourned on March 10, it was once again in an unprecedented fashion. The shortened session, which lasted just 60 days, was held virtually due to ongoing concerns over COVID-19.
But while lawmakers were able to participate in this year’s session remotely, not all residents of Grays Harbor have the same privilege when it comes to participating in the virtual world.
Internet equity has moved to the forefront of national policy dialogue over the past two years as the world rapidly transitioned to remote work and school environments. The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), two major federal spending bills passed and signed into law by President Biden in 2021, included provisions for improved broadband access.
The IIJA’s Affordable Connectivity Program includes $14.2 billion for discounted Internet services for families through financial assistance programs.
“I’ve been pushing for better broadband access since before the pandemic, but it wasn’t until COVID-19 hit that we really brought this issue to everyone’s attention,” said Senator Murray. (D-WA) in a press release. February 3.
“That’s why I’m so glad we were able to get major investments in broadband internet and digital inclusion through both the US bailout and the bipartisan infrastructure act, which gave us firmly on the path to universal broadband, will help reduce costs, and finally bridge the digital divide.”
As federal and state dollars pour in for improved broadband access, the local community has its own gaps that it must fill to bridge this digital divide. According to a 2019 estimate from the AWB Institute, 9.89% of households in Grays Harbor County had no form of internet.
This burden falls hardest on the county’s more rural areas, where private internet providers are less likely to invest in expensive broadband infrastructure for such a small number of customers.
“Over the past decade, the state has come a long way in recognizing that improving broadband is a big deal,” said Ian Cope, director of communications and government relations for Grays Harbor PUD #1 ( GHPUD), during the business forum lunch of the 2022 legislative session in Aberdeen. .
The event, hosted by Greater Grays Harbor (GGH) on Tuesday, April 26, featured a discussion of Washington State’s 2022 legislative session and economic development outcomes. Attendees included Representatives from the 19th Legislative District, Jim Walsh and Joel McEntire, and Senator Jeff Wilson. While Representative for the 24th Legislative District Mike Chapman was unable to attend due to illness, Representative Steve Tharinger was present.
“With the pandemic, it became clear very quickly that there are haves and have-nots when it comes to internet access,” Cope said. “In many rural areas, internet access simply did not exist.”
GHPUD has attempted to close this gap by expanding its network into the county’s rarest coverage area. PUD has applied for more than $5 million in funds from the Washington State Public Works Board to expand its network infrastructure along US Highway 12 near the county line. The proposal included expansion to Porter-Malone and Oakville, among other East County communities.
“This was a project that would have expanded our network and allowed suppliers to reach those customers,” Cope said.
“Over our last two years, we’ve been doing community outreach to see what the desire for those areas was, and it was pretty clear that we needed better access there. During the pandemic, people were talking about driving to Elma just to get a signal to email or check their bank account.”
Due to the Public Works Board application process, private broadband providers can object to the project without the possibility of amendment or reconsideration.
The GHPUD proposal was killed due to an objection over a $30,000 section of network expansion in Elma. According to Cope, if revisions had been allowed, the PUD could have deleted this section so that the rest of the multimillion-dollar project could continue.
The future of the network expansion project is not set in stone, however. On June 9, a bill passed this year by the Washington State Legislature will take effect and change certain application and public notice requirements for the Public Works Commission’s broadband program.
House Bill 1673 can help public entities such as GHPUD move projects through a more collaborative and transparent application process.
“The bill that has been passed, HB1673, would now allow for some changes to the process that we hope would allow situations like the one that upset our application to pass. That was certainly one of the most broadband legislation for PUDs this session,” Cope said.
In the last session, the legislature passed the Public Broadband Act (HB1336), which went into effect on July 25, 2021.
The bill allowed public entities – such as ports, non-profit organizations and community-owned utility districts – to provide retail broadband services and launch their own public broadband networks, a option that they had previously been prohibited from pursuing.
While GHPUD decided not to take the option, Jefferson and Kitsap PUD seized on the new legislation as an opportunity to expand internet access in their communities by becoming retailers themselves.
“It’s not just about funding, it’s a two-part process. Part one is about the committed dollars. The second part, the hard part, is getting those dollars into the proverbial shovels – that’s where that I think we failed,” said Jim Walsh, Representative for the 19th Legislative District, at the GGH luncheon.
According to Cope, GHPUD has reapplied to the Board of Public Works for funding for the East County Grid Expansion Project. PUD is also considering expanding into the “river valley” to improve service to communities, such as Satsop, Wynoochee and Wishkah.
“Rural expansion is definitely one of the main areas that our IT department is looking at right now,” he said.