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State funding for rural broadband a ‘start,’ advocates say

The $21.5 million in Washington state’s construction budget for rural broadband funding won’t put much of a dent in the $1 billion investment experts say is needed to expand access to every region of the state.

But state and local leaders say the creation of a state broadband office, along with momentum created by the early funding, could be the start of more expansive efforts to bring internet connectivity to rural areas.

“I’m excited about the opportunities coming up for us,” said Lewis County commissioner Edna Fund, noting that early efforts will likely be spotty. “I do know it’s going to take a lot of money. It’s almost like a patchwork quilt.”

The capital budget passed by lawmakers at the end of the legislative session provides $21.5 million to the Public Works Board for the purpose of expanding high-speed broadband infrastructure. About $7 million of that funding will be in the form of grants, while more than $14 million in loans will be available.

Meanwhile, the Legislature established a broadband office under the Department of Commerce that will start the process of assessing the need, connecting providers with funding opportunities, and making policy recommendations for future infrastructure investment. Though the broadband office won’t be large to begin with – or be a distributor of funds – it will serve as an “information clearinghouse,” said John Flanagan, policy advisor for Gov. Jay Inslee.

“It is absolutely instrumental,” Flanagan said. “We do anticipate that that funding will increase over time and the office’s role will continue to expand.”

The broadband office will start out with a full-time director, as well as potentially a few part-time employees. The Public Works Board was chosen as the fiscal agent for the initial broadband investment, since it is accustomed to handling the role of distributing funds for infrastructure projects.

Chris Roden, general manager of the Lewis County Public Utility District, said the funding was welcome, but said the utility had hoped to see another bill giving PUDs retail authority for broadband to reach underserved areas.

“We think it needs to continue to go farther,” he said. “We have people like the PUD able to reach its customers, but there’s this gigantic wall in front of us that prohibits us from offering that service. That’s why we have customers with poor service.”

Some feel the funding provided by the state didn’t go far enough. Betty Buckley, executive director of the Washington Independent Telecommunications Association, noted that most of the investment was in the form of loans, which doesn’t help truly rural areas where expanding service can be cost-prohibitive.

“If a rural area could support the repayment of a loan, we would have built it out by now. This is still going to leave the most rural areas of our state unfunded and unserved,” she said. “The question that it always seems to come down to is, are you going to give those people who have some connectivity better connectivity, or are you going to spend the money to get out to the parts of the state that have barely more than dial-up?”

Flanagan called that a “valid criticism,” saying future budgets will need to make more grant funding available.

“There are a lot of places where only a grant is ever going to be feasible,” he said. “The loans are still going to be utilized, I really do think. I don’t think we’re going to come back in two years and there’s still going to be $10 million in the account.”

Part of the process of making the full $1 billion investment will be coming up with a cohesive funding model of state and federal dollars, then bringing that to the table with public and private partners who want to build infrastructure, along with whatever investments they can make.

“$22 million is kind of a drop in the bucket compared to $1 billion,” Flanagan said. “It’s still progress. We don’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good. We’ve already committed to coming back in future years and having this be a long-term program.”

Buckley said that future funding will tell the tale of whether the state is truly committed to rural broadband.

“It does start to put a framework in place, but more people have to be comfortable with the idea that it’s just expensive,” she said.

Among the groups that lobbied for the broadband package was the Quinault Indian Nation, which has seen firsthand the disadvantages of poor broadband connectivity and invested much of its own funding into expanding access on its reservation.

“It’s a good starting point,” said Tyson Johnston, the tribe’s vice president. “It gets our foot in the door, and it also allows for public-private partnerships. … Even though it’s small, there’s opportunity for growth.”

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