A bill modernizing the state’s approach to building internet infrastructure has Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature as the legislation was signed into law last week.
Substitute House Bill 2664 was formerly passed into law March 22 during a signing ceremony at the Capitol, allowing for port districts in the state to develop fiber optics infrastructure. What ports can now build are so-called “dark fiber” networks as internet service providers (ISPs) would come in and “light” the network providing the systems needed for a fully-functioning connection to the internet, at speeds far above and beyond that of older types of transmission lines.
“Gaining access to broadband is one of, if not the most, crucial economic development tools that rural areas and small towns in the state need,” Inslee was quoted in a release from the Port of Ridgefield following the signing. “Under this bill the authority to acquire and operate telecommunications facilities for district use and to provide wholesale telecommunications services within and outside districts is extended to all ports.”
The bill’s primary sponsor was Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, with supporting sponsorship from Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Felida, Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, and Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver. The bill passed both houses unanimously.
Now that the bill has passed, the Port of Ridgefield’s own plan for a 42-mile, $2.5 million dark fiber loop can move forward.
“Limited broadband service here has left our community at a competitive disadvantage relative to retaining and attracting business, and it has hampered our educational institutions in delivering current, quality content,” Port of Ridgefield Vice President of Innovation Nelson Holmberg stated in the release. “That’s why we’ve been pushing hard to get a change to that law, and we’re excited our efforts have paid off.”
Prior to the bill’s passing only ports in rural areas could develop the infrastructure as a way for the port to provide the capital investment that for-profit ISPs would not be likely to undertake themselves, the release stated. This meant that ports in small communities near a major metropolitan area couldn’t develop the infrastructure.
A study by the port in 2017 showed a need for the infrastructure through; private companies weren’t able to give a timeframe regarding when they could put in that needed development.
“That’s why the port commission stepped in with a broad vision of an opportunity to provide needed infrastructure to the community for economic growth,” Holmberg stated. “We have been running in that direction ever since.”
Holmberg has been working with other ports in the state along with the Washington Public Ports Association to get the support of legislators and private ISPs in order to get the law passed.
“It was critical to us to help everyone understand we don’t want to be the ones delivering service,” Holmberg stated. “We have no intention of being in competition with service providers, we’re just going to build the ‘bones’ of the system so any provider can then use our fiber to offer the service.”
Port of Ridgefield CEO Brent Grening stated in the release that broadband access was the last piece of infrastructure needed for growth to explode in the Discovery Corridor, a region from La Center to Hazel Dell along Interstate 5 identified for its potential as a development hub.
“Gaining access to broadband capacity has become a necessity, especially with the rapid expansion of emerging technologies,” Grening stated. “We have all the other pieces of important community infrastructure in place here — roads, improved junction, great schools, expanded water and sewer capacity — this is the last piece necessary to ensure our community keeps up, and has the infrastructure for a 21st century economy.”
Grening also took time to thank Holmberg, who took a position of leadership among the ports in getting the legislation passed.
The port has existing capital to fund the $2.5 million project that is already designed, according to the release, with additional funding for subsequent developments including federal funds and revenue earned from leasing the infrastructure to ISPs.
“There will not be an increase in the port tax to do this project, nor is the port requesting an appropriation from the state’s capital budget,” Holmberg stated. “This money is coming from larger pots of money designated for exactly this kind of project.”
Holmberg thanked both the Port of Whitman County and the Port of Skagit as instrumental in helping to get the legislation passed, adding that partner ports in Vancouver, Camas-Washougal, Woodland and Chehalis also helped in the effort.
The bill had strong support among Southwest Washington legislators, with Holmberg thanking senators Ann Rivers, R-La Center, Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, and Reps. Liz Pike, R-Camas, Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, along with Reps. Vick, Stonier and Wylie.
“Their leadership on getting this legislation through both chambers, and all of the challenges, was essential,” Holmberg stated. “We would not be here today if not for these determined leaders.”