Pro Community Broadband Bill in Washington Will Return Next Year

Representative McCoy Discusses HB 1711 and Access to the Internet in Washington state

As we recently noted in our coverage of the Chelan Public Utility District in Washington state, state law restricts the authority of Public Utility Districts to offer retail services over the fiber-optic networks many have built. But at least one Representative is pushing to expand PUD authority.

Representative John McCoy has been working to improve rural broadband access and spurring more competition in Washington State. He brought a bill, HB 1711 that would allow PUDs to begin offering retail services as well as offer telecommunications services outside their traditional boundaries.

The bill did not go far this year, likely due to the considerable influence of large carriers like Charter, Frontier, and others. But Representative McCoy plans to bring it up again next year and may have more support depending on the recommendations of a current study. The University of Washington Law School is studying options to expand broadband access in rural areas. The final report is due in December and will address the option of allowing PUDs to offer retail access.

I strongly encourage people who may be interested in such developments in Washington to contact Rep McCoy or email me to find out how you can get involved. Quite frankly, we need to develop better networks to ensure citizens are aware of efforts like this bill so elected officials can be contacted in a timely manner.

At the bottom of this post, we have embedded a six minute audio clip of Rep. John McCoy discussing HB 1711 and issues around access to the Internet more generally from a Progressive States Network conference call earlier this month.

Digging into this bill, the summary of the bill [pdf] offers some history:

Public utility districts (PUDs) are municipal corporations authorized to provide electricity, water, and sewer service. In 2000, the Legislature authorized PUDs and rural port districts to acquire and operate telecommunications facilities for the following purposes: (1) to serve their own internal telecommunications needs; (2) to provide wholesale telecommunications services within their district limits; and (3) to provide wholesale telecommunications services to other PUDs by contract.

Currently, 14 PUDs and three rural port districts in the state provide wholesale telecommunications services.

Elevation map of Washington state

And for local governments,

According to a 2003 Attorney General Opinion, first class cities and code cities may provide telecommunications services as part of their "home rule powers," except as may be limited by specific statutory language governing particular services. Second class cities and towns, however, do not have the authority to provide telecommunication services.

The full summary of the bill:

A public utility district (PUD) or rural port district may provide retail telecommunications services in areas that are within or adjacent to the district. In addition, a PUD or rural port district may provide wholesale telecommunications services in areas that are adjacent to its district.

Retail telecommunications services is defined as the sale or lease of telecommunications services or facilities to public agencies, individuals, non-profit organizations, libraries, schools, institutions of higher education, or other public or private entities.

Any PUD or rural port district offering retail telecommunications services must ensure their rates, terms, and conditions for retail telecommunications services are not unduly or unreasonably discriminatory or preferential. In addition, PUDs and rural port districts must keep separate accountings of revenues and expenditures for their retail telecommunications activities and may establish a separate utility function. Revenues generated from the retail telecommunications activities must be used to pay off the costs incurred in building and maintaining the telecommunications facilities.

If a person or entity receiving retail telecommunications services from a PUD or rural port district has a complaint regarding the reasonable of the rates, terms, conditions, or service provided, the person or entity may file a complaint with their PUD or rural port district.

A city or town may construct, purchase, lease, operate, and maintain telecommunications services or facilities in order to provide its inhabitants with telecommunications services. The city or town has full authority to regulate and control the use, distribution, and price of the service.

A definition of "utility service" is added with respect to code cities. This definition includes telecommunications services as well as water, sewer, solid waste and electricity.

For the actual language of the bill, download HB 1711 [pdf]. If you care about these issues, get involved -- the cable and telco lobbyists will speak for you unless you get involved.