Last week, Representative Drew Hansen (D-Bainbridge Island) filed House Bill 1336. This bill should be celebrated widely and has the potential to upend the internet monopolies in Washington State. We have endured twenty years of large telecom and cable companies getting larger, through mergers and acquisitions.
In Seattle, where the City Council voted to remove the last barrier that cable companies claimed prevented competition: area-specific cable franchises. After six years, there is still virtually no competition between the two cable providers. Meanwhile, the phone companies in our state stay largely in the territories they’ve occupied for a century. And when they do roll out next-generation fiber service, they do so only in “profitable” areas. It is time for a change!
Share the Cities is a community organizing group made up of people who, like a lot of Washingtonians, have been earning our livings from home or struggling with unemployment. We are also struggling with educating our children, connecting with loved ones, and getting medical care, all from home at the mercy of slow and unreliable internet connections. We’ve suffered through unexplained outages and speeds a tenth of what we’ve been paying for; and that’s when we can even get connected at all. Reliable, affordable, and equitable access to the Internet is no longer a luxury for our society; it is a necessity.
We must fight for internet to be a common good, like our fantastic libraries, or our public utilities like water, electricity, sewer, and recycling. Ending for-profit internet monopolies won’t be enough. We need robust funding for customer education and community-led digital equity alongside any municipal broadband plans.
The private market cannot equitably serve the public’s needs for internet, and we are not the only ones to point this out. Were it not for private industry lobbying our legislature to restrict it, our public utility districts would have been able to provide internet access alongside their other public services. We cannot leave this vital resource solely to companies motivated by profit and aimed towards serving some areas while others lag behind or go without. We have an obligation to ensure that everyone has access; government has this mandate, private companies do not.
Right now, people across the state struggle with spotty satellite or mobile data connections, in lieu of paying tens of thousands of dollars to have a wire strung to their house. Due to pandemic-related library closures, many Washingtonians, especially unhoused people, have no internet access at a time when public information is critical to saving lives.
“We have learned a lot during the pandemic and one of the biggest lessons is that access to high-speed internet is essential in the 21st century, but not everyone has that access,” Rep. Hansen said in a press release. “Telecoms have had decades to build out fiber networks but there are still regions in our state that are internet deserts or have very poor access. That’s inequitable and unacceptable. Let’s give our local public utilities a chance to provide this essential service to people who need it to work, go to school, or attend a telemedicine appointment.”
Hansen’s Public Broadband Act does not require that a city or a port or a utility district offer Internet access, only that the residents in an area are now legally able to approve a public broadband plan. We need local governments to provide this vital utility. This bill sets rules for fairness and equal access. Let’s make it clear we want this option for Washington’s cities and counties and utility districts to break up our internet provider monopolies.
Wes Mills (Guest Contributor)
Wes Mills is a volunteer board member and treasurer for Share the Cities, a community action group in Seattle organizing around land use, municipal broadband, and an equitable city. A car-free transit supporter, he likes curling and learning how to keep plants alive at the P-Patch. Follow him on Twitter: @oowm.