Washington Law Would Let Counties Sell Broadband Service When Comcast Won’t

Last year, we told you about Seth, who had recently relocated to Washington only to find out he might have to sell his new house because Comcast had lied to him about being able to provide the Internet connection he needs for his home office. And even though the county runs a high-speed fiber network not far from his property, current state law restricts consumers from buying access to that service. Recently proposed state legislation hopes to right that wrong and give counties the ability to serve residents when Comcast and others refuse to.

Current Washington state law allows for municipalities to own and operate broadband networks, but they can only sell wholesale access, meaning that customers must purchase so-called “last mile” service through a third party, even if it’s only a few yards from the existing fiber line to the house being connected.

In Seth’s story, Comcast twice told him that his house was already connected to their cable broadband network. It wasn’t, and never had been. Likewise, CenturyLink’s database showed Seth’s address as being part of their decent-speed DSL service. Again, it was not.

Through some clever red-tape wrangling (and no small personal expense), Seth and the Kitsap County Public Utility District [PUD] were eventually able to get him service, but it’s not a process that every unconnected homeowner would, or could, be able to navigate.

“That shouldn’t have to happen,” State Senator Christine Rolfes of Kitsap tells Consumerist. “It’s absolutely vital that every citizen has the ability to get online.”

Even though Rolfes represents Seth’s county in the state assembly, she had not heard of his particular story when she introduced SB 6237 [PDF], aimed at giving more options to Washington consumers stuck in the same boat.

Rather than simply try to repeal the state’s wholesale-only limitation on municipal broadband, the bill provides certain conditions under which a county like Kitsap could sell service directly to a consumer.

In short, if your area has a dominant Internet service provider (meaning that it offers service to more than 51% of the municipality), but that ISP isn’t willing or is unable to provide service to certain residents, then the ban on retail sales would be lifted.

To Rolfes, this “limited and prescribed” approach to retail county-owned broadband is a way to provide residents with a much-needed service without the government encroaching on the cable company’s business.

“It’s an economic fairness issue,” explains the senator, “as opposed to some big change in telecom service policy. People need this service, but it’s not being provided to them. How do we help that?”

Rolfes acknowledges that Kitsap and other PUDs that wish to offer service to these unconnected residents could try to appeal to the legal system or to the FCC in an effort to overturn the state’s retail ban. Both Wilson, NC, and Chattanooga, TN, successfully petitioned the FCC with regard to restrictive muni broadband rules in their states — though that is now a matter that is tied up in the courts.

Instead, Rolfes is “hoping for legislative relief that wouldn’t result in a huge legal bill.”

Previous attempts to pass similar legislation in Washington — where the senator says the cable and telecom industry lobbies are “really powerful” — and Rolfes admits there’s the possibility that SB 6237 will die on the vine like its predecessors.

One difference with this version of the bill, she explains, is that the legislation now has the backing of the state’s PUDs, even the ones that don’t currently operate broadband networks.

“You can’t get legislation passed that doesn’t have really strong grassroots support,” Rolfes tells Consumerist. “It’s taken awhile to get the PUDs all on the same page.”

The legislative push isn’t just about connecting consumers, it’s also about giving the PUDs a reason to keep investing in this vital infrastructure. As Rolfes sees it, the PUDs might be hesitant to put more money into these networks if they can’t be connected to the end-users who need them the most.

By allowing PUDs to provide service to the people that the Comcasts and CenturyLinks have been ignoring, Rolfes contends that it “frees up the marketplace to allow the public sector to be creative.”

In researching Seth’s story, some of the PUD folks we spoke to said that while they do want to help out residents who can’t get service elsewhere, they have no interest in going head-to-head with the likes of Big Cable.

“Having a handful of retail customers would be no big deal,” said one PUD staffer at the time. “We’re just not equipped to do customer service for thousands of people.”

Of course, as Rolfes points out, “It’s not like the cable companies are known for their excellent customer service either.”

In fact, at a recent hearing on the bill, the senator repeated the oft-shared joke, “This is how you fix the drug problem in America. First: Legalize all drugs. Second: Require that all drugs be purchased through cable company customer service.”

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