By EMMA EPPERLY
For The Sun Tribune
OLYMPIA — A statewide broadband office would be created under legislation passed by the Washington State Senate Wednesday in a unanimous vote.
Senate Bill 5511 would establish the Governor’s Statewide Broadband Office, require the Public Works Board to create a grant and loan program, and modify the state Universal Communications Services Program, along with other changes.
The expansions to the Universal Communication Services Program would cost $5 million annually and if the money is not used in any given year the funds would roll over.
The Public Works Board grant and loan program would be awarded to local governments, tribes, nonprofits and multi-party entities, among other groups. The projects must meet certain criteria to receive funding like being located in an underserved area or offering new or updated broadband service to important institutions in the community.
Governor Jay Inslee has made expanding broadband into “every nook and cranny” of the state a focus this year. Inslee gave a press conference on his proposals Jan. 16 and has continued to push the issue throughout the legislative session.
“I consider this one of, if not the most important, small town and rural economic development issues and to see that advance is really great news,” said Inslee at a press conference Thursday.
Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, pushed the bill at Inslee’s request, and noted it supports schools and learning across the state.
“Broadband is also a necessary tool for participation in the modern economy,” Wellman said in a statement Wednesday. “Access to internet will do wonders for small businesses throughout Washington state.”
The bill now moves to the House of Representatives which has been working on a companion bill in HB 1498.
Representative Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, has voted in favor of the House version in both the Capital Budget and Appropriations committees but says the bill is not her “preferred approach.”
Dye was a key force behind HB 2664 which was signed into law in March 2018. That law focuses on facilitating private/ public partnerships to expand broadband infrastructure.
Dye’s main issue with this new legislation is the extensive definitions proposed in both the House and Senate bills. “Definitions in tech create barriers,” said Dye. People know if they have effective coverage or not in their areas, said Dye.
While Dye has voted in support of versions of this bill, she said it could be a setback and is hoping for negotiations to continue.
“Leave the space as free and open as possible to allow innovators to solve these problems,” said Dye.
The House can choose to consider the bill sent over by the Senate or continue to pursue passing HB 1498.