Tucked inside Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed budget for the 2019-2021 fiscal cycle is a $1.2 million plan to create an office devoted to building out broadband internet access across the state. Creation of the office, which would have the authority to set statewide policy and promote private investment, would add Washington to a growing list of states with offices dedicated to expanding internet availability.
“Broadband access is essential for full participation in society and the modern economy,” Inslee’s budget proposal reads. “People rely on internet service to access health care and other essential services, obtain an education and build careers. Businesses need the internet to market themselves and serve customers. Broadband can also help first responders get quickly to residents in an emergency. Yet too many Washingtonians, especially in the most rural parts of the state, lack access to affordable broadband service.”
The new office, which would be located inside the state Commerce Department, would become Washington’s main authority for coordinating broadband deployment, which is currently administered by several state agencies. Inslee’s proposal also comes a few months after a statewide tour to promote broadband development in rural areas and tribal communities, especially in Eastern Washington.
Washington ranks as the 14th-best state for internet connectivity, with 94.8 percent of the state’s residents having access to wired download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second, according to Broadband Now, a website that grades internet service providers. But much of the best service, boasting speeds of at least 100 megabits per second, is concentrated in Seattle and its suburbs, while less than half of some Eastern Washington counties enjoy that level of access.
The fastest-wired part of the state, however, is Asotin County in the very southeastern corner, where some 23,000 residents have access to a fiber network capable of delivering data at speeds of 1 gigabit per second thanks to a county government investment.
In a post on his office’s Medium page, Inslee said residents he met on the trip told him greater broadband access would spur economic activity, as well as make it easier to access health care and other critical services.
Along with the new office, Inslee’s proposed budget also calls for $25 million in bonds and grants for broadband infrastructure upgrades in rural parts of Washington, to be administered by the state’s Public Works Board.
Washington had an earlier statewide broadband office beginning in 2009, when it received a five-year grant to operate using federal funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The state legislature attempted to revive the office in 2017, but the bill creating a new broadband office stalled in the state senate.