Washington Bill Precarious On Port Partnerships

PUDs in Washington have been developing fiber optic networks as open access infrastructure for decades. Even though ports have the same authorization to develop broadband infrastructure, their authority is limited. Currently, a port may operate telecommunications facilities for its own uses within and beyond its district, but can only provide wholesale services within the districts. A bill in the legislature would remove the ports' geographic limits and expand their authority, but amendments to the bill might cut into the measure's effectiveness.

Ports Want To Partner

HB 2664, which has worked its way through the state legislature aims to change the current situation by expanding a port’s ability to offer wholesale services outside of its district. The goal is to allow a port to use its infrastructure to partner with a private sector ISP to bring better connectivity to residents, businesses, and other entities in the areas around the port’s district.

HB 2664, which passed the House on February 14th, went on to the Senate and passed there, but was amended to require a project to focus on unserved and underserved areas. In places like Bellingham, where a city has grown up around the port and beyond its boundaries, the community could work with the port to make use of its fiber infrastructure to develop better connectivity for economic development, public savings, and better services for schools and libraries. A restriction forcing the port to prioritize on unserved and underserved communities, however, might thwart a project where DSL or cable now serves the community, even though the service is far below what the FCC considers broadband, expensive, or limited to spotty areas in town.

Putting It All Out There

Another amendment requires that any ports that decide to start using their infrastructure for wholesale service must first establish a business plan and have it reviewed by an independent third party consultant. Recommendations and adjustments associated with the review must all occur transparently. Often private sector partners shy away from working with the public sector when state laws put them in such a potentially vulnerable position.

HB 2664 started off as a promising piece of legislation but amendments may considerably limit its effectiveness.

The Process Continues

Due to the amendments in the Senate, the bill will go back to the House. The House can either concur with the bill as it is now, or they will assign a conference committee of members from both bodies to work through the differences and come up with a compromise bill.

Read the the bill here and the Senate staff bill report here. You can track the bill online at the Washington State Legislature website.