The COVID-19 pandemic made us reconsider how we work, attend school, seek medical care and interact with family and friends. One thing is clear — access to affordable broadband is more important than ever. As leaders in fiber infrastructure development, Public Utility Districts must be allowed to compete for federal funding to serve the most hard-to-reach rural customers.
Policy makers recognize that broadband access is critical to a community’s success. Congress and the president are considering broadband as part of their respective infrastructure proposals. In October, the Federal Communications Commission will conduct a $16 billion competitive funding program.
Unfortunately, it isn’t clear that PUDs will be eligible for funding. For example, the FCC program requires applicants to provide retail service. Mid-Columbia PUDs have built open access fiber networks, making high-speed broadband available to about 70 percent of their customers. Under Washington state law, we do not serve customers directly. Instead, we lease network capacity to retail companies. The approach makes it feasible for retailers to serve customers in rural areas that otherwise are not profitable enough to attract traditional carriers.
PUDs have proven they are willing to build infrastructure to unserved areas. We continue to build our fiber networks to reach as many county customers as reasonably feasible. With each step closer to that elusive 90-100% coverage, it gets more costly and challenging in rural areas. Meanwhile, traditional providers are not interested in reaching these customers, and the design of some federal programs mean high-cost areas often lose out on long-term solutions.
Across Washington state, local PUDs have invested more than $455 million in broadband infrastructure, installed over 7,200 miles of fiber, and connected more than 46,000 end-users. During the pandemic, PUDs also responded by installing wireless hot spots for emergency internet access. Still, existing federal funding programs aren’t designed to include our open-access systems and high-quality fiber networks.
To achieve rapid broadband deployment, we urge our nation’s policy makers to work with the Washington State Broadband Office to remove barriers to PUD participation in current and future federal broadband programs.
Steve Wright, General Manager
Chelan County PUD
Gary Ivory, General Manager
Douglas County PUD
Kevin Nordt, General Manager
Grant County PUD