State legislation lays groundwork for broadband in Washington's underserved areas

Washington's state legislature is getting closer to passing legislation which could help dramatically expand high-speed broadband Internet in underserved rural and urban areas. While details are still being worked out, the legislation (see 1701 and 5916) would allow the state's Department of Information Technology to help increase broadband deployment in unserved and underserved areas across the state, to map existing broadband coverage to homes, businesses, and state agencies, and to create new programs for promoting Internet adoption and digital literacy. The primary anticipated funding source - and the new legislation's raison d'etre -- is $7.2 billion in broadband funds included in the recent federal stimulus package.

Early in this year's legislative session, Rep. Zack Hudgins, Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles and others introduced a range of bills related to broadband Internet deployment and regulation, many hoping to take advantage of federal funds which would be released as part of the Obama administration's stimulus package—details of which were not known until early March.

Broadband stimulus

One of the most exciting aspects of the federal stimulus package is the $7.2 billion dedicated to broadband deployment for rural and underserved areas. It's no secret that the US lags far behind other industrialized democracies in broadband speed and availability, and much of the blame has been on the lack, until now, of major public planning and investment. The stimulus funds will kick US broadband deployment in the right direction. Local and state governments, utility companies, nonprofits and of course telecommunications companies are preparing to submit proposals for making use of the federal funds.

The funds will be administered mostly by the NTIA (the Dept. of Commerce agency currently running the DTV coupon program) and the Rural Utility Service (a Dept. of Agriculture agency soon to be headed by outgoing FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein). The FCC will be overseeing a particular type of project – broadband mapping to determine the "whats and wheres" of broadband needs around the country – where services are or are not available, what service type (fiber, cable, etc), at what speed, and at what price.

Mapping

Establishing such maps is one of the first priorities for broadband stimulus funds at the state level, including Washington, The details of how this mapping will take place here are still a bit up in the air in state legislation, but have been the subject of major lobbying from the telecommunications companies (including Verizon and AT&T) whose networks already provide internet and phone service around the state. The public and state government planners will benefit from knowing exactly what services are available at what locations – down to knowing what's available on a particular residential neighborhood or block, and how one service area compares with another.

However, the large telecom companies that own much of this infrastructure are fiercely opposed to sharing such information with the public. The telcos (echoed reflexively by CWA union lobbyists) argue that information about their network services and pricing is "sensitive" and "proprietary," and should be shielded from disclosure. Consumer advocates and media democracy groups (including Reclaim the Media) counter that the public has a right to demystify what kinds of cables and wires are already buried beneath our streets and passing through our neighborhoods – we're not talking about revealing super-secret corporate strategies, we're talking about simply describing the situation that already exists on the ground and in public rights-of-way. [Additionally, public interest advocates argue, we should be able to know whether and where public institutions own dark (unused) fiber which might be able to serve a future municipal or community network.]

Unfortunately, Democratic lawmakers pushing broadband legislation in Washington have shown little interest in standing up to telecom and echoing CWA lobbyists on the issue of "proprietary" information. The resulting legislation will start off on weak footing as a result. (For more on broadband mapping and public disclosure, see our report on Connected Nation).

Digital Inclusion

Broadband deployment to unserved or underserved areas is only useful if residents can afford Internet access and computer hardware, and have the skills needed to use computers to access online resources such as news, local government and public services, health care information, tax information, cultural and community organizing resources.

Under the new state legislation, the Dept. of Information Services would expand Community Technology Opportunity programs statewide through a matching grant program, in order to help local communities promote technology adoption, digital inclusion and digital media literacy.

Different versions of the legislation still represent different approaches to digital inclusion—it remains to be seen exactly what approach will become part of the final bill.

Broadband speed and Definitions of "Underserved"

[UPDATE: State legislation has been pegged to the FCC's definition; if the FCC adopts a higher threshold, Washington's will rise as well.] The state bills would define broadband at the decidedly old-fashioned speed of 768kbps (that's the FCC's current definition, likely to be updated in the near future). There is growing agreement that the minimum threshold ought to be at least 1.5 Mbps, the speed of a low-end DSL connection. That's still pretty sluggish compared to the speeds commonly available in other industrialized democracies.

Valerie Fast Horse has suggested raising the threshold to 100 Mbps. On the other hand, such a forward-looking definition of broadband would likely put most of the country in the category of "underserved area," which could make it difficult to prioritize bringing basic services to the rural and urban communities of greatest need. The Washington State definition of underserved specifies a list of somewhat vague criteria for census tracts with demonstrated economic disadvantage and/or poor levels of broadband deployment and adoption.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey