Bill needed to improve access to technology

Advanced telecommunications and broadband services improves lives, helping teachers give students access to new ideas and learning opportunities, enabling emergency responders to communicate patients’ conditions to doctors, and allowing small businesses to locate and compete anywhere.

Legislation (SB 5711) under consideration in Olympia will correct three major problems and encourage telecommunications and broadband investment in Washington.  Correcting these problems is especially important for underserved communities and rural areas.  

Since 2013, when federal funds to support telecom services in small rural communities began drying up, Washington State established a universal service fund to fill the gap.  This fund provides $5 million a year for rural telecom services and is set to expire in 2020.  The legislation eliminates this sunset date.  

The legislation would also stop local governments from charging prohibitive fees for carriers to attach equipment to light and power poles.  Public Utility Districts (PUDs) claim they are simply covering costs incurred from these attachments but they are charging many times the actual cost and many times what private utilities, whose rates are set by a state formula, charge.   

The final problem is that many cities are subjecting small cell siting to the same time-consuming and expensive land use permit process used for major cellular towers.  Small cells are unobtrusive panels or canisters a few feet in total area, but are extremely important in making existing networks function better and in laying the foundation for future deployment of fifth-generation (5G) services.  

The bill maintains local control and ensures public input by subjecting small cells to cities’ right of way agreements.  But requiring small pieces of equipment to go through full-blown land use review, complete with notification signs larger than the cells themselves, is bureaucratic overkill, with serious implications for a state that prides itself on being a technology leader.

“If siting a small cell takes as long and costs as much as siting a cell tower, few communities will ever have the benefits of 5G.” says former Federal Communications Commission chair Tom Wheeler. Similarly, the Association of Washington Cities recognizes that “Every community wants a faster cellular network; it’s good for citizens, businesses, government operations, and the economy.”

While their words provide support, the actions of many cities stand in the way of providing telecom services to those who need it most.  Current practices may pad their budgets or help manage their workloads, but they clearly aren’t in the best interest of the people they’re supposed to serve.  

Washington’s telecommunications companies stand ready to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to reduce broadband inequality, improve existing network functionality, and prepare for the new and exciting world of 5G telecommunications services. All citizens of Washington deserve those benefits.

When local governments erect financial or permitting barriers to that investment, those dollars go to other communities.  Without this legislation, Washington will lose the broadband race.