When Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed Substitute House Bill 2664 into law today, he did something very special for Ridgefield and the rest of the state.
He opened the gates for rural broadband deployment.
With the bill signed into law, the Port of Ridgefield announced that for citizens and businesses in the Discovery Corridor, it brings high-speed broadband service at competitive rates one big step closer to reality.
At the signing, Governor Inslee acknowledged the importance of this legislation to the state.
“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 said.
“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. I want to thank Representative Dye and Senator Wellman for their leadership and I’m really glad to see this bill get across the finish line.”
HB 2664 was prime sponsored by Rep. Mary Dye (R-Pomeroy), with supporting sponsorship from local Reps. Brandon Vick (R-Felida), Monica Stonier (D-Vancouver) and Sharon Wylie (D-Vancouver). Other sponsors were Reps. Beth Doglio (D-Olympia), Bill Jenkin (R-Prosser), Mike Chapman (D-Port Angeles), Jim Walsh (R-Aberdeen). It was unanimously passed by both the House (98-0) and the Senate (49-0) before heading to Inslee’s desk for signature. The Senate companion bill was sponsored by Sen. Lisa Wellman (D-Mercer Island).
The broadly supported, bipartisan bill gives all Washington state port authorities the opportunity to develop open-access broadband infrastructure for lease to all interested service providers.
“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,” said Port of Ridgefield Vice President, Innovation Nelson Holmberg. “That’s why we’ve been pushing hard to get a change to that law, and we’re excited our efforts have paid off.”
Previous legislation only allowed ports in areas designated as “rural,” to develop broadband infrastructure, based on a reality that for-profit internet service companies were not inclined to make extensive capital outlays to serve just a small number of people.
For Ridgefield, and other small Washington communities with proximity to a major-metropolitan area, they were not technically-defined as rural under the former legislation.
“The definition of ‘rural’ as fewer than 100 residents per square mile of the county the port is in was a force fit put in place nearly 20 years ago,” Dye said.
Despite a need demonstrated in a quantitative and qualitative research study completed for the port in 2017, many private companies were unable to specifically answer questions of when they would make the financial outlay necessary to deliver higher speed internet services to these areas.
“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 said. “We have been running in that direction ever since.”
Over the last couple of years, Holmberg has been working with other ports in the state, along with Washington Public Ports Association, to secure this new legislation by seeking the support of state senators, representatives and private service providers.
“It was critical to us to help everyone understand we don’t want to be the ones delivering service; 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,” Holmberg said.
Port of Ridgefield CEO Brent Grening is clear that economic growth is headed for the Discovery Corridor, but that broadband is the last piece of critical infrastructure needed by modern companies.
“Gaining access to broadband capacity has become a necessity, especially with the rapid expansion of emerging technologies,” Grening said. “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 was effusive in his praise for Holmberg’s leadership role and long hours dedicated to securing this legislation.
“In no way do I discount the value of the involvement of other ports on the team, but Nelson clearly took a leadership position, kept things moving, learned the ins and outs of the legislative process, and ultimately was instrumental in achieving a goal that will serve to strengthen the economic health of our community and many other communities in our state,” Grening said.
While working on the legislation, the port has also worked to stay ahead of the process and to be “shovel ready” when the governor signed the legislation.
“We hope to go to bid on this project on or around the effective date of the new law,” Holmberg said.
The port’s plan for a 42-mile backbone loop is already designed. It requires $2.5 million of the port’s existing capital. Additional funding for future phases of construction will be secured from various sources including potential federal funding. Revenue earned from the port’s broadband infrastructure will also be re-invested into the growth of the system.
Holmberg was also quick to point out that local taxpayers won’t foot the bill for any of the broadband infrastructure dollars required.
“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. This money is coming from larger pots of money designated for exactly this kind of project.”
Holmberg expressed appreciation to the other ports whose help was crucial in getting the legislation approved.
“Port of Whitman County, which is the success model for port-developed broadband infrastructure, and the Port of Skagit were both instrumental as part of the team that helped us push this forward,” Holmberg said. “Our partner ports in Vancouver, Camas-Washougal, Woodland and Chehalis were also critical in helping us complete this effort.”
Holmberg also expressed his gratitude for the bill’s support from the Clark County delegation – Senators Ann Rivers (R-La Center), Lynda Wilson (R-Vancouver), Annette Cleveland (D-Vancouver, and Reps. Brandon Vick (R-Felida), Liz Pike (R-Camas), Paul Harris (R-Vancouver), Vicki Kraft (R-Vancouver), Monica Stonier (D-Vancouver), and Sharon Wylie (D-Vancouver).
“Their leadership on getting this legislation through both chambers, and all of the challenges, was essential,” Holmberg said. “We would not be here today if not for these determined leaders.”