Sheldon 5G proposal creates state broadband office, launches study

OLYMPIA – State Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, is weighing into this year’s debate on 5G deployment with a bill that creates a new state Office on Broadband Access, launches a task force, and directs it to study issues that include pole-attachment charges levied by public and municipal utilities.

Senate Bill 5935, co-sponsored by Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, counters a proposal favored by broadband providers earlier this session, SB 5711, that would have imposed strict limits on the fees charged by public and municipal utilities for pole attachments.

Sheldon, a former commissioner for Mason County Public Utility District 1, says the broadband industry’s approach would dramatically reduce revenue for public and municipal utilities. “We need to proceed with caution,” he said. “We should not require public utilities to charge a rate that does not cover their costs and would force them to raise rates to consumers.”

Lawmakers this year are looking for ways to encourage private broadband providers to build the superfast 5G networks that are just around the corner. Although broadband networks in nearly all cases are installed and maintained by private companies, providers generally must use existing utility poles. Private utilities are strictly limited in the amount they may charge for pole attachments, under a cost-recovery scheme devised by the Utilities and Transportation Commission. But public and municipal utilities are not regulated by the UTC, and are allowed to determine for themselves how to calculate their costs.

This has led to huge discrepancies. Broadband providers testified at a Feb. 8 hearing before the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee that they typically pay $7 to $9 per attachment when using private-utility poles, but public utilities and cities can charge as much as $30. Cities and public utilities maintain their rates reflect actual costs. The broadband industry proposal would require public and municipal utilities to follow the same cost-recovery rules as private utilities. Similar legislation is being considered in other states.

Under Sheldon’s proposal, the new Office on Broadband Access, under the governor’s office, would work with local governments and public and private utilities to develop new policies. The task force would consider plans for deployment of new technology and barriers to its development. It would be required to make recommendations to the Legislature by Nov. 15, 2018.

Sheldon’s proposal also would launch a program designed to meet the needs of underserved areas, with two pilot projects that would provide service by 2020. A grant program under the Department of Commerce would assist local governments with planning. Local governments would be required to develop ordinances setting standards for deployment of new small-cell technology, while treating all providers in a neutral fashion. When existing poles and other infrastructure are utilized, local governments generally would be prohibited from requiring new land-use permits.

“This is a bill that will work for all areas of the state, urban and rural,” Sheldon said. ”This seems to be the fairest way to ensure a swift rollout of new technology that does not put the consumer at risk. Customers of public and municipal utilities should not be required to subsidize the development of networks by for-profit companies.”