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PUDs may offer services directly to customers if bill passes

by Angelica Relente, Herald Legislative Writer
| February 3, 2021 1:00 AM

State legislators are looking to expand the authority of public utility districts with a bipartisan bill moving through the House.

House Bill 1336 would allow public utility districts, port districts, cities, towns and counties to offer retail telecommunications services to end users directly, according to the bill’s text.

Public utility districts and port districts can only provide wholesale telecommunications services at this time, according to the bill’s text. Public utility districts can supply retail telecommunication services with limited authority, while port districts do not have the authority to supply those services at all.

Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, is the primary sponsor of HB 1336. Rep. Alex Ybarra, R-Quincy, is co-sponsoring the bill.

The past year has shown high-speed internet access is not an option, but a basic requirement, Hansen said Wednesday during the virtual legislative hearing. Washingtonians who do not have reliable internet access are placed at a disadvantage.

“It is long past time for Washington to join the majority of the states and allow unrestricted public internet,” Hansen said.

Ybarra said during the virtual legislative hearing he supports HB 1336 if it means serving the children’s needs. He said many students in his school district did not have internet access when the switch to remote learning occurred.

“At the end of the day, it’s for the kids,” Ybarra said. “We need to get that internet for our kids so they can become citizens and replace us.”

George Henny, co-CEO of Whidbey Telecom, testified against HB 1336 during the virtual legislative hearing. He said the bill could undermine the efforts of existing service providers.

“Public entities, such as PUDs, should not be permitted to offer unrestricted retail service particularly in areas where private broadband providers are actively willing to provide service,” Henny said.

Henny said HB 1336 puts existing providers on an uneven playing field, and the bill will do more damage to the rural broadband landscape than to improve it.

“We really do support the need for getting broadband out to everybody,” Henny said. “We just want to make sure that it’s done in the most cost-efficient and effective way.”

Aaron Wheeler, information technology director for the Suquamish Tribe, testified in support of HB 1336 during the virtual legislative hearing. He said the bill would help tribal members who do not have regular internet access.

“Without this (bill), the tribes are limited to old infrastructure and old technology that has not been improved in decades,” Wheeler said.

Eric Sobotta, superintendent of the Reardan-Edwall School District, also testified in support of HB 1336 during the virtual legislative hearing. He said he supports legislation that would expand broadband access and connectivity for students and families.

“There are students and families across the state just like those in our district that have been disenfranchised from learning due to this incredible digital divide,” Sobotta said. “It (is), no doubt, an equity issue.”