Lost in the shuffle of the Inslee budget: A state broadband office

Dec 17, 2018, 7:03 AM | Updated: 7:07 am

Lost in the noise of Governor Jay Inslee’s proposed $1.1 billion dollars to save local orcas, a controversial capital gains tax, and a B&O tax hike, was the establishment of a “Statewide Broadband Office.”

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The new office would look to “serve as the central planning and coordinating body for public and private efforts to deploy broadband.” Additionally, it would award funding for broadband service to unserved and underserved areas in the form of $17.5 million in bonds and $7.5 million from the Public Works Assistance Account.

So, why is this important?

In early December, Microsoft President Brad Smith published an article detailing the “rural broadband divide.” Essentially, rural areas in the U.S. with the lowest rates of broadband availability also happened to feature some of the highest unemployment rates. Smith argues that despite subsidies, much of the nation’s rural areas remain without access to the internet – roughly 19 million people.

Without a proper broadband connection, these communities can’t start or run a modern business, access telemedicine, take an online class, digitally transform their farm or research a school project online. You see this dilemma play out in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics employment data, which shows the highest unemployment rates are frequently located in the counties with the lowest availability of broadband. As a nation, we can’t afford to turn our backs on these communities as we head into the future.

While Washington is the 14th “most connected state” in the county, just 13.8 percent of residents have access to 1 gigabit broadband, primarily in Asotin County, that began funding connections to a fiber-optic network in 2018.

According to data from Broadband Now, a total of 9 percent of the state’s population remains “underserved.” Meanwhile, no one in Lincoln County has access to speeds over 100 mbps, while just 27 percent of Adams County has access to speeds over 25 mbps.

What all that data tells us is simple: Rural areas in Washington are the ones who suffer most when it comes to broadband speeds and access.

Enter the proposed Statewide Broadband Office, created with the goal of making broadband access — a service some have called as essential as utilities like power and water — readily available for those who need it most.

This has been a pet project of Governor Inslee for some time. Back in June, Inslee took a three-day trip across the state to talk about expanding broadband service to all Washingtonians.

“Rapid technological innovation is transforming every school, every hospital, every company and every industry in Washington. Broadband service that allows citizens to create and connect to this innovation has become the critical infrastructure need of the 21st century,” Inslee said on the tour. “Broadband is the single most important economic development tool we have, and will ensure more equitable access to education, jobs and health care throughout the state.”

Inslee’s proposed state budget would be for $54.4 billion, for what would be approximately a 20 percent total increase. It also includes funding for the recovery of the state’s endangered orca population, combating climate change, shuffling Washington’s mental health system, and more.

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Lost in the shuffle of the Inslee budget: A state broadband office