Sheldon broadband bill gets hearing Thursday

OLYMPIA – A bill aimed at expanding access to broadband services in rural areas gets a public hearing in the Senate Energy, Environment and Technology Committee Thursday.

SB 5935, sponsored by state Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, creates a new state Office on Broadband Access, launches a task force, and directs it to study issues related to the rollout of superfast Internet and 5G networks. It also provides funding for immediate action on deployment.

The hearing takes place 10 a.m. Thursday in Senate Hearing Room 1.

“In this age of the Internet, access to broadband service is a necessity, not a luxury,” Sheldon said. “The concern is that rural areas could be left behind as broadband providers focus on more lucrative urban markets. High-speed service is as important to rural areas as it is for our major cities, and access should not depend on your zip code.

“Yet as this rollout occurs, we also need to make sure customers of public utilities are not forced to subsidize cable and telephone companies. Utilities should be able to charge rates for pole attachments that cover the cost of maintaining the system, and communities should be able to regulate installation appropriately.”

Sheldon, a former commissioner for Mason County Public Utility District 1, maintains utilities ought to be able to set their own rates for pole attachments. Sheldon was recognized this month by the Association of Washington Cities for his work in supporting cities’ authority to regulate and maintain local control.

“As we do everything we can on the state level to promote broadband development, we need to ensure that local concerns about costs and design standards are recognized,” he said. “A new broadband office and a state task force ought to help us sort out the issues and identify ways to eliminate barriers to development. The last thing we want to see is a system in this state of broadband ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’”

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 be charged with developing a statewide broadband access plan. It would be required to make recommendations to the Legislature.

Sheldon’s proposal also would launch a program 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.

The measure is co-sponsored by state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, chair of the Senate Energy, Environment and Technology Committee.