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Washington State Legislature Passes Legislation Aimed at Increasing both Access and Adoption of Broadband

With the passage of  HB 1701 the Washington State legislature once again demonstrated its understanding that when combating the digital divide states must not just address access issues, but must also focus on dealing with the barriers to broadband adoption by individuals.  In addition to hoping to increase high-speed Internet access for residents, businesses, educational institutions, public health and safety services, local governments and community organizations, HB 1701 also lists a menu of the types of digital inclusion programs that should be implemented in Washington State.  By addressing both access and adoption barriers directly Washington State hopes to ensure that all residents can be active participants in our 21st century digital society.  According to Jonathan Lawson, Executive Director of Reclaim the Media, "connecting all our communities with fast broadband is a compelling public need -- to allow everyone to take part in our digital democracy, culture and economy.  This new legislation clears a path for us to follow towards that goal." 

Broad Coalition in Support:  The bill originally sponsored by Representatives HudginsHasegawa and McCoy and incorporating amendments championed by Senators Kohl-Welles and Kastama was supported by a broad coalition of advocates, such as the Communication Workers of America (CWA), the Communities Connect Network and carriers and includes investments in digital training and inclusion programs. According to CWA's Washington State Council Political Director, Gail Love, "the broad coalition of organizations that lobbied on behalf of HB1701 has not always viewed issues from the same perspective.  However, on HB1701, we found common ground.  Bringing high-speed broadband accessibility to the residents of Washington will enhance their lives socially and economically and will bring jobs and new business to our region."   

Capitalizing on Recovery Funds: The legislation was drafted, in part, so that the state could capitalize on the approximately $7.2 billion in the ARRA earmarked for broadband initiatives.  Aside from authorizing the Governor to take steps to carry out the purposes of the broadband provisions in the ARRA, HB 1701 has three major provisions:  a data collection and mapping initiative, the establishment of the Community Technology Opportunity Program, and the reconstituting of the state's high-speed Internet working group.  

Collection and Mapping of Access and Adoption Data:  HB 1701 designates the Department of Information Services (DIS) as the eligible entity in the state to apply for funds under the federal Broadband Data Improvement Act.   In addition, the bill directs DIS to develop a map of where broadband services are and are not currently available in Washington State and "to work with other agencies to identify the communities most in need of new or additional broadband Internet services."  Specifically, the legislation states that depending on the availability of federal or state funding, the department may develop an interactive web site to allow residents to self-report whether high-speed Internet is available at their residence and at what speed; may conduct a detailed survey of all high-speed Internet infrastructure owned or leased by state agencies; and is authorized, through a competitive bidding process, to procure a geographic information system map detailing high-speed Internet infrastructure, service availability, and adoption.  The department may either contract for and purchase a completed map from a third party or work directly with the federal communications commission.  In addition, the department may prepare regular reports that identify the geographic areas of greatest priority for the deployment of advanced telecommunications infrastructure and a detailed explanation of how federal funding for broadband mapping, deployment, or adoption will be or has been used.  

One concern advocates voiced regarding the bill is that data collected from private providers will be considered 'proprietary' information and therefore not accessible to the public.  Advocates in the state and nationally argue that such an approach lacks transparency, leaves the public unable to verify the collected information, and public policy researchers unable to access the date necessary to study which broadband policies are most effective.  On a positive note, however, the legislation does establish an important accountability and oversight structure to ensure that there is transparency in the bidding and contracting process and full financial and technical accountability for any information or actions taken by a third-party contractor creating the map.  

Digital Inclusion:  The legislation recommits Washington State to addressing broadband utilization barriers by moving the Community Technology Opportunity Program (CTOP) under the Department of Information Services.  The CTOP uses a competitive grant program to encourage broadband adoption in low-income and underserved areas of the state.  Initiatives facilitated by the program include Internet adoption, training, and skill-building opportunities; access to hardware and software; digital inclusion and digital media literacy; development of locally relevant content; and delivery of vital services through technology.  The CTOP will also provide organizational and capacity building support to community technology programs throughout the state.  According to Betty Buckley, executive director of Communities Connect Network, a national leader in promoting digital inclusion programs and creating state demand-side policy, "HB 1701 takes another significant step forward in building the policy framework for how our state will ensure digital inclusion for all.  Passing this bill in the current economic climate speaks volumes about the strength of the multi-faceted broadband coalition we’ve build here in Washington State." 

Reconstituting the State's High-Speed Internet Working Group:  The law allows for the continuation of the high-speed Internet working group, under the new title, the Council on Digital Inclusion.  As the council's new name denotes, the group will now focus on broadband adoption, not just deployment issues.  The Council on Digital Inclusion will have representatives from government, educational, public health and industry sectors, and will advise DIS and further strategize about expanding broadband deployment and adoption across the state. 

Resources:

House Bill 1701
Increase Technology Literacy and Inclusion

Reclaim the Media

Community Connect Network