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Washington lawmaker says letting government offer internet ‘gives us another option’

Third grade teacher Cara Denison speaks with students virtually while live streaming her class via Google Meet at Rogers International School on Nov. 19, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Do you hate your internet provider? Or maybe you’re one of many people who only have one option to choose from? So here’s a question for you: How would you feel about a government option for your internet? Representative Drew Hansen of Kitsap County is the sponsor of a new bill in Olympia that would allow local government to offer broadband internet.

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“We have a lot of people in this state who just either don’t have high speed internet access at all, or they have it and it’s expensive, and it’s not very good,” Hansen explained. “We had a hearing yesterday on this bill, and we heard people from all over the state, like a mom in the Spokane Valley who has a special needs kid who, you know, she’s got to drive some place to get fast enough internet to testify at the hearing. People in rural Washington and forested areas who have no internet at all.”

“And here’s the weird part,” Hansen continued. “Washington is one of a minority of states that says governments like public utility districts or ports just can’t provide internet access, it’s illegal to customers, to normal customers like you or me.”

While Hansen admits he’s not sure if government provided broadband internet would work in every situation, he believes they should at least be able to try.

This bill also wouldn’t only benefit people in rural areas.

“It potentially benefits everybody,” he said. “… The Port of Seattle came, they signed in to testify in support of my bills, one of the port commissioners. The restriction effects public utility districts and ports all around the state. And this is the kind of thing where there’s economies of scale, right? The bigger the entity that could be providing the service, probably the more likely it is that they could make it pencil out economically.”

“Take my district, Kitsap County, we’re kind of rural, we’re kind of urban, we’re kind of suburban. It’s not like we’re 10,000 miles away from anything. Kitsap County is dying to have this authority,” Hansen said. “They think they can pull this off. And so that’s the whole point of the bill is just why can’t they try? At least remove the restriction, let them try to provide broadband to the public. And if it works, great. If it doesn’t, we’re no worse off than we are right now.”

One criticism or pushback to this idea, Ursula points out, is that some people don’t trust that the government will really do a better job. Hansen says he has an easy answer to that.

“[In] a majority of states in this country, they allow the government to provide unrestricted broadband,” he said. “And that includes not just liberal states, but conservative states. … And what they find on average is when the government starts providing this service, cost goes down and speed goes up.”

Which, he says, is something we could all use. Everyone would benefit from cheaper internet at faster speeds, Hansen said.

“At the very least, it gives us another option. Again, at the worst, OK, they can’t make it work, big deal. You’re stuck with whatever it is you have now,” he added.

Another argument is that it would cost money for the government to buy the land, the cable, and build the infrastructure needed to make this happen.

“For sure,” Hansen said. “And I think there is federal money available to make this easier. That’s what my people in Kitsap County told us, and so that will give them some help. But no question, right? It’s an expensive proposition. That’s probably the reason that some of the infrastructure isn’t there now. But again, if it’s expensive, … and they can’t figure out a way to make it pencil out, OK, fine, they just won’t offer it.”

Taking away the restrictions doesn’t solve the whole problem, Hansen admits, but taking them away at least allows for the opportunity to try to solve the problem with whatever federal money or “anything that they could get their hands on to help them.”

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For those people, who as Gee points out, don’t want the government involved, but also don’t want to be forced to use one internet provider, Hansen says no one would be forced to use any particular service, rather it would just be another option.

“You’re not going to be forced to use government anything,” he said. “But if the government can come in and give you an option, then you’re not forced to use whoever your existing bad, expensive internet provider is. You might have … some more choices. That’s I think what we all can come together on and want.”

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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