Washington is Teaming Up for Better Broadband
Tuesday, July 11, 2023
Washington is Teaming Up for Better Broadband
"Access to broadband is the single most important economic development tool in our toolkit right now, and the most necessary to our state."
—Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA)
Tucked inside Governor Jay Inslee’s proposed budget for the 2019-2021 fiscal cycle was a $1.2 million plan to create an office devoted to building out broadband internet access across the state. The idea was to create an entity with the authority to set statewide policy and promote private investment.
“Broadband access is essential for full participation in society and the modern economy,” the proposal read. “People rely on internet service to access health care and other essential services, obtain an education and build careers. Businesses need the internet to market themselves and serve customers. Broadband can also help first responders get quickly to residents in an emergency. Yet too many Washingtonians, especially in the most rural parts of the state, lack access to affordable broadband service.”
In May 2019, the Washington State Legislature found that:
- Access to broadband is critical to full participation in society and the modern economy;
- Increasing broadband access to unserved areas of the state serves a fundamental governmental purpose and function and provides a public benefit to the citizens of Washington by enabling access to health care, education, and essential services, providing economic opportunities, and enhancing public health and safety;
- Achieving affordable and quality broadband access for all Washingtonians will require additional and sustained investment, research, local and community participation, and partnerships between private, public, and nonprofit entities;
- The Federal Communications Commission has adopted a national broadband plan that includes recommendations directed to federal, state, and local governments, including recommendations to:
- Design policies to ensure robust competition and maximize consumer welfare, innovation, and investment;
- Ensure efficient allocation and management of assets that the government controls or influences to encourage network upgrades and competitive entry;
- Reform current universal service mechanisms to support deployment in high-cost areas, ensuring that low-income Americans can afford broadband, and supporting efforts to boost adoption and utilization; and
- Reform laws, policies, standards, and incentives to maximize the benefits of broadband in sectors that government influences significantly, such as public education, health care, and government operations;
- Extensive investments have been made by the telecommunications industry and the public sector, as well as policies and programs adopted to provide affordable broadband services throughout the state, that will provide a foundation to build a comprehensive statewide framework for additional actions needed to advance the state's broadband goals; and
- Providing additional funding mechanisms to increase broadband access in unserved areas is in the best interest of the state.
- To that end, the law established a grant and loan program to support the extension of broadband infrastructure to unserved areas. To ensure the program primarily serves the public interest, the legislature intended that any grant or loan provided to a private entity under this program be conditioned on a guarantee that the asset or infrastructure to be developed is maintained for public use for a period of at least fifteen years.
The Washington State Broadband Office was established and tasked with promoting access and achieving download/upload speed goals for residences, businesses, and communities. The purpose of the office is to encourage, foster, develop, and improve affordable, quality broadband within the state in order to:
- Drive job creation, promote innovation, improve economic vitality, and expand markets for Washington businesses;
- Serve the ongoing and growing needs of Washington's education systems, health care systems, public safety systems, industries and business, governmental operations, and citizens; and
- Improve broadband accessibility for unserved communities and populations.
The state legislature gave the broadband office six core powers and duties:
- Serve as the central broadband planning body for the state;
- Coordinate with local governments, tribes, public and private entities, nonprofit organizations, and consumer-owned and investor-owned utilities to develop strategies and plans promoting deployment of broadband infrastructure and greater broadband access, while protecting proprietary information;
- Review existing broadband initiatives, policies, and public and private investments;
- Develop, recommend, and implement a statewide plan to encourage cost-effective broadband access and to make recommendations for increased usage, particularly in rural and other unserved areas;
- Update the state's broadband goals and definitions for broadband service in unserved areas as technology advances, except that the state's definition for broadband service may not be actual speeds less than 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and three Mbps upload; and
- Encourage public-private partnerships to increase deployment and adoption of broadband services and applications.
The law also identified three connectivity goals for the state:
- By 2024, all Washington businesses and residences have access to high-speed broadband that provides minimum download speeds of at least 25 Mbps and minimum upload speeds of at least three Mbps;
- By 2026, all Washington communities have access to at least one gigabit per second (Gbps) symmetrical broadband service at anchor institutions like schools, hospitals, libraries, and government buildings; and
- By 2028, all Washington businesses and residences have access to at least one provider of broadband with symmetrical download and upload speeds of at least 150 Mbps.
The law also authorized, for the first time, Washington's public utility districts (PUDs) and port districts to provide temporary retail services to customers if an internet service provider (ISP) operating on a PUD telecommunications facility that provides wholesale services ceases to provide access to the internet to its end-use customers and no other retail service providers are willing to provide service. The law allowed port districts to acquire and operate telecommunications facilities for their own internal telecommunications needs and to provide wholesale telecommunications services outside of their district limits. A port district may select a telecommunications company to operate all or a portion of the port district's telecommunications facilities.
In 2021, the state legislature amended these provisions, authorizing PUDs and port districts to provide retail telecommunications services within and outside the district's limits. To provide retail telecommunications services, public entities including PUDs, port districts, cities, towns, and counties must provide a report including:
- An assessment of the current availability of broadband infrastructure and its adequacy to provide high-speed internet access and other advanced telecommunications
- Services to end users;
- The locations where retail telecommunications services will be provided;
- Evidence relating to the unserved nature of the community in which retail telecommunications services will be provided [here "unserved" means lacking access to 100/20 broadband service];
- Expected costs of providing retail telecommunications services to customers to be served by the public entity;
- Evidence that proposed telecommunications infrastructure will be capable of scaling to greater download and upload speeds to meet state statutory broadband goals;
- Sources of funding for the project that will supplement any grant or loan awards; and
- A strategic plan to maintain long-term operation of the infrastructure, and the expected installation charges and monthly costs for end users.
Broadband Action Teams
Washington recognizes that relationships between service providers and community leaders are key to designing broadband service solutions. One model for convening these conversations is the Broadband Action Team (BAT). There are BATs serving residents and businesses across the state, with the goal of bringing access to high-speed internet connectivity, internet-capable devices, and the digital skills to use them to every resident.
A BAT can help a community:
- Centralize the broadband conversation and direct engagement with the State Broadband Office.
- Assist statewide digital equity and inclusion efforts and represent community technology and accessibility needs.
- Connect participants to collaborative project goals.
- Connect community projects to funding opportunities.
Washington State Broadband Programs
State Universal Communications Services Program
The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) is a three-member board appointed by the governor with a mission to protect the people of the state by ensuring that investor-owned utility and transportation services are safe, equitable, reliable, and fairly priced. The UTC regulates the rates and services of telephone companies operating in the state of Washington, but does not normally regulate broadband service. UTC does operate a state universal service program called the Washington Universal Communications Services Program (UCS). The UCS program was initially conceived as a temporary support mechanism for the provision of local telephone service by small incumbent communications service providers in Washington. The UTC has awarded over $18 million in program support to those companies according to specific eligibility and funding rules.
The UCS program was not directly intended to support broadband service or the extension of facilities to expand broadband coverage. Rather, the program was created to provide targeted funding to the state’s smallest telephone companies to provide a moderate glide path to adjust for Federal Communications Commission-mandated changes in federal financial support that had historically been provided to small carriers. The UCS program also addressed the elimination of an antiquated state support mechanism that was associated with declining long-distance service revenues and inter-carrier compensation.
Small telecommunications carriers participating in the UCS Program have invested in fiber optic facilities for the continued provision of telephone and broadband services. Investments have also included enhanced exchange line circuit equipment to increase broadband speeds and growth capacity. Although not necessarily intended, the UCS program has supported the provision of broadband service in the small telephone companies’ service areas given the fact that material portions of the facilities utilized by these carriers are common to the provision of telephone and broadband service.
Public Works Board
Since its founding in 1985, Washington State's Public Works Board has awarded more than $3.1 billion in loans and grants to over 2,000 infrastructure projects across the state. These projects promote public health and safety, protect the environment, promote community and economic development, and broadband connectivity. The Public Works Board is the fiscal agent for Washington’s statewide broadband policy. In collaboration with the State Broadband Office, the Public Works Board established a competitive grant and loan program to award funding in order to promote the expansion of access to broadband service in unserved rural and urban areas of the state. There was approximately $13.5 million available for loans in 2023. The loan term is 15 years, or the life of the improvement, whichever is less, including four years for completion. Allowable uses of the associated funding include the acquisition, installation, and construction of middle-mile and last-mile infrastructure and strategic planning for deployment of broadband service. The program has wide eligibility, an ‘objection’ process for incumbent providers in order to preserve resources, and clear direction regarding funding priority. Projects in financially distressed areas and Indian country may receive up to 90 percent of the total project cost for a total not to exceed $5 million. Projects in other areas are limited to a $2 million loan or grant with a 50 percent match.
Community Economic Revitalization Board
Washington's Community Economic Revitalization Board (CERB) was formed in 1982 to respond to local economic development in Washington communities. CERB provides funding to local governments and federally-recognized tribes for public infrastructure which supports private business growth and expansion. Eligible projects include domestic and industrial water, stormwater, wastewater, public buildings, telecommunications, and port facilities. CERB's Rural Broadband Program provides low-interest loan/grant packages to local governments and federally-recognized Indian tribes, financing the cost of building infrastructure to provide high-speed, open-access broadband service, to rural underserved communities, for the purpose of community economic development. Eligible projects are those that encourage, foster, develop, and improve broadband within the state in order to:
- Drive job creation, promote innovation, and expand markets for local businesses; or
- Serve the ongoing and growing needs of local education systems, health care systems, public safety systems, industries and businesses, governmental operations, and citizens; and
- Improve accessibility for underserved communities and populations.
CERB offers loans at $3 million maximum per project. Loan terms up to 20 years with interest rates between one and three percent. Applicants must provide a cash match of 20 percent of the total project cost and demonstrate feasibility with a supporting study. Eligible applicants include cities and towns, counties, federally-recognized Indian Tribes, municipal corporations, and port districts.
Washington State Broadband Office
The Washington State Broadband Office (WSBO) oversees a number of broadband funding programs.
Infrastructure Acceleration Grants
In 2021, the WSBO received 53 pre-applications requesting more than $415 million from an available pool of approximately $143 million in the first phase of the Broadband Infrastructure Acceleration Grant program, funded by the federal American Rescue Plan Act's State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds. The WSBO awarded funding to 13 projects, totaling nearly $141 million. The remaining funds are set-aside for bid or material cost increases, program administration, and $5 million in funding for broadband equity and affordability grants, which will be made in consultation with the Washington Office of Equity.
The second round of Acceleration grants in the 2021-23 biennium opened in the fall of 2022 with approximately $120 million available. The WSBO received 50 applications requesting more than $316 million for the second round of the Broadband Infrastructure Acceleration Grant program. The WSBO awarded funding to 19 projects, totaling more than $121 million in May 2023. State Broadband Matching Grants
In 2023, the WSBO has approximately $25 million in matching grants available for federal broadband infrastructure financing opportunities like the U.S. Department of Agriculture's ReConnect program. Matching fund applications will be accepted on an ongoing basis for local partners applying for federal broadband infrastructure funding (grants or loans). Match grant awards will be committed on a first-come, first-served basis to eligible applicants whose projects are strong candidates for the federal funding opportunity sought. Match awards may not exceed $5 million.
Eligible applicants include local governments, federally-recognized Tribes, nonprofit organizations and nonprofit cooperative organizations, and public-private partnerships. Winning projects must stay under the applicant’s control for a minimum of 25 years, either through ownership or a long-term lease. And applicants must commit to using the infrastructure funded by the grant for the purposes of providing broadband connectivity for a minimum of 25 years.
Rapid Design Studies The WSBO has a limited amount of funding to provide communities with Rapid Design Studies to facilitate their buildout of broadband infrastructure.
A Rapid Design Study is a technical review that provides communities with project information including but not limited to:
- Design analysis, up to 6 different designs, with different configurations of each project, including 100 percent fixed wireless, various hybrid models, and 100 percent fiber to the premise;
- Cost projection;
- Barriers for planned location(s);
- Tribal lands in the project area;
- Number of locations in project area unserved by wireline 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload; and
- Follow up with the technical advisor for results of Rapid Design Study.
Grant Writing Services
The WSBO also has a limited amount of funding to provide contracted grant writing services to local governments and tribes seeking funding from a federal agency for broadband infrastructure development. These services cannot be used to apply to state or local funding sources. This program partners the community with a grant writer to:
- Evaluate project with the community to determine which funding source has the highest probability of success;
- Assist in gathering, editing, and preparing the documentation required for the specific Federal Funding source;
- Provide the community with application narratives as needed; and
- Support the community to ensure a completed grant application package is submitted on-time.
Federal Support for Washington State Broadband
Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Planning Grants
In December 2022, the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) awarded Washington its first “Internet for All” grants for deploying high-speed internet networks and developing digital skills training programs. The state received over $6 million in funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to plan for the deployment and adoption of affordable, equitable, and reliable high-speed internet service throughout the state. From the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program Washington received $5 million for:
- Identification of unserved and underserved locations in the state;
- Training of employees and capacity-building of the broadband office;
- Ensuring broadband projects do not result in overbuilding areas;
- Collaborating with local, regional, and Tribal entities, as well as unions and worker organizations;
- Asset mapping across Washington to catalog high-speed internet service adoption, affordability, equity, access and deployment; and
- Surveying communities to better understand barriers to internet service adoption.
By September, Washington is expected to deliver a 5-year plan to employ over $1.2 billion in BEAD Program funding to ensure fast, reliable, affordable broadband reaches every serviceable location in the state.
Washington also received over $1 million for:
- Developing a statewide digital equity plan;
- Hiring new team members and contracting with a vendor to assist with plan development;
- Conducting a digital literacy survey; and
- Convening a state digital equity forum to identify barriers to digital equity.
The state's digital equity plan is expected in December 2023.
Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program
The University of Washington won a nearly $3 million award from the NTIA's Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program. The "Connect Across Tacoma: devices, skills, and service expansion for digital equity" project aims to address digital divides in Tacoma, improving broadband access, adoption, and education for students of the University of Washington Tacoma and patrons in its anchor community. The university aims to expand access to internet-enabled devices for in-need students and patrons; expand access to internet service for in-need students and patrons; provide digital skills training to in-need students and patrons; and build the community capacity to create sustainable, community-driven digital equity solutions for minority communities.
Broadband Infrastructure Program
The WSBO was one of 13 projects awarded funding from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's (NTIA) Broadband Infrastructure Program. The Connecting Rural Counties: Washington State Broadband Office Partnership Broadband Initiative is a last-mile fiber and last-mile wireless project that aims to overcome the barriers to broadband access and connectivity in five rural counties of the state: Ferry, Jefferson, Kittitas, Okanogan, and Stevens. These counties were selected as a result of the assessment conducted by the state of Washington in 2019 in preparation to bring high-speed internet access to all by 2024. The project was awarded $30 million and aims to bring broadband service to 7,196 unserved households.
Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program
The NTIA's Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program awarded grants totaling more than $93 million to ten Tribes located in Washington. Awardees include:
- The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. The Confederated Tribes received nearly $48.5 million to connect 2,867 unserved Native American households with either 1 Gbps symmetrical (fiber) or 300/30 Mbps (wireless) broadband.
- The Spokane Tribe of Indians. An award of nearly $17 million will connect 800 unserved Native American households, 10 businesses, and 28 anchor institutions with fiber-to-the-home 100 Mbps/100 Mbps service.
- The Lummi Nation. Nearly $16 million will install fiber and directly connect 2,273 unserved Native American households, 193 Tribal businesses, and 23 anchor institutions with 1 Gbps symmetrical speeds.
Capital Projects Fund
In late June 2023, the U.S. Treasury approved Washington's plan to use all of the state's Capital Projects Fund award ($195.7 million) from the American Rescue Plan Act to fund broadband infrastructure projects. Washington will implement three competitive broadband infrastructure programs that aim to provide reliable internet access to households across the state:
- Washington’s State Broadband Office (SBO) broadband grant program will prioritize the investment of $118.5 million to provide reliable internet in communities without internet service and then to those with internet speeds below 25/3 Mbps.
- The state will also invest $43.7 million of its Capital Projects Fund award to the Public Works Board (PWB) Broadband Program—a program designed to provide high-speed internet in distressed rural counties, or projects in tribal areas.
- Washington will invest $23.8 million towards the Community Economic Revitalization Board (CERB) Rural Broadband Program to expand last-mile broadband access in rural areas of the state without reliable internet.
Washington estimates that this support will help connect eight percent of the locations still lacking high-speed internet access in the state.
Networks deployed with Capital Projects Fund support will be designed to deliver internet service with speeds of 100/100 Mbps symmetrical or better to households and businesses. And network operators will participate in the Federal Communications Commission's Affordable Connectivity Program which provides a $30/month subsidy for qualified low-income households.
The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.
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