Rep. Drew Hansen, a long-time advocate of expanding broadband coverage and affordability in Washington State, is both happy and a little worried about the hundreds of millions of broadband funds approved by the US Senate this week.
He is happy because if the House of Representatives passes, the state may receive between US$100 million and US$700 million in federal funds to reduce costs while improving its broadband services—solving two problems that have become apparent during the pandemic.
But the Democrats on Bainbridge Island also saw the potential for imminent conflict. Hansen helped to promote legislation that allowed municipal districts to become direct Internet service providers for the first time. He did not want to see taxpayers’ money eventually leading to higher profit margins for private Internet service providers.
“Washington State has made it clear that our top priority is public broadband,” he said. “This is not money that should be used to subsidize private companies. This should be spent on public broadband.”
At least one key official who may have a say on the matter does not fully agree with this view.
Russ Elliott, director of the State Broadband Office under the Department of Commerce, is also excited about the intergenerational opportunities for hundreds of millions of dollars in statewide broadband infrastructure.
Like Hansen, he hopes to provide cheaper broadband for those who can’t afford it, and fast downloads for those who currently don’t have reliable Internet access.
But unlike Hansen, he sees private companies as part of the solution—not just the cause of existing problems.
“Drew and I have discussed this issue,” Elliott said, acknowledging that the two wanted the same results to a large extent, but in different ways. “What we need to do-the private sector must be involved-is to make our broadband infrastructure look forward to the future.
“We don’t need to get caught up in a dispute between public and private,” he said.
At this point, this argument seems very possible, although it is not clear what Hansen or any other legislator can do to restrict how the country spends its money.
Currently awaiting a vote by the U.S. House of Representatives, the Broadband Fund is a $1 trillion infrastructure bill Passed with bipartisan support in the Senate on Tuesday. Among the new federal expenditures of US$550 billion-the legislation also continues some existing projects-the measure will set aside US$110 billion for highways and bridges; another US$25 billion will be spent on airports; Amtrak US$66 billion; And 65 billion U.S. dollars is used to expand high-speed Internet nationwide.
It is not clear when the House of Representatives will take steps to vote.
The exact amount that Washington will take has not yet been determined. According to historical population-based federal spending formulas, the state may see as much as $700 million, or even $1 billion. According to existing guidelines, each state will receive at least $100 million.
But what the guidelines do not determine is whether the money can be used to subsidize high-speed Comcast broadband for families below the poverty line in Seattle, or whether it can be used to expand existing public broadband work in Kitsap County.Current language of legislation Seems to allow both.
Hansen has said that in some cases, private Internet providers are the reason for such severe broadband inequality in the state.For example, a King County Study A survey completed in 2020 found that 80% of residents in Jinxian County have enough Internet, and the remaining 20% even lack sufficient basic services, which means that their upload speed is slow — or not at all — or the service cost is too high. high.
Hansen and other public broadband advocates say the reason is that for-profit companies eliminate all profitable, low-hanging fruit, leaving rural and low-income people in trouble.
In other words, advocates say that private companies have their opportunities.
“The federal government can-and should-set conditions for this money,” Hansen said. He said that some forms of public-private partnerships may work if state governments are cautious about how federal funds are used. “I don’t want to see it as a profit center for private Internet companies.”
Elliott countered that not all private service providers are one size fits all. “I appreciate Drew’s point of view, but there are also smaller private companies doing excellent work in rural areas of the state,” he said. “If you exclude these companies, you will do a lot of harm to rural Washington.”
He said that the 2009 infrastructure package approved by the Obama administration under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to fund public and private projects is considered a success. Washington received approximately $150 million in funding from the bill.
If new funds flow into Washington, Elliott said it must allow public-private partnerships to provide opportunities and fairness to the state’s underserved population more quickly. “We need the participation of the public and private sectors to make this happen quickly. It needs.”