OLYMPIA – With lightning-fast Internet and 5G service just around the corner, the Washington Senate approved a sweeping bill Wednesday that paves the way for expansion of high-speed broadband services in rural and underserved areas of the state.

Senate Bill 5935, sponsored by Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, establishes high-speed broadband service for all of Washington as a high-priority state concern. The measure responds to concerns that less-lucrative markets will be bypassed as commercial providers race to install high-speed broadband systems. Sheldon’s bill creates a new Office on Broadband Access under the state Department of Commerce, establishes an advisory task force, and launches a study of the ways the state can encourage deployment and remove barriers to service.

“The Legislature has come to recognize the importance of high-speed Internet service to our state’s economic competitiveness,” Sheldon said. “As senator from the state’s most-rural district, I want to make sure none of us are left out.

“Good broadband service is just as important to rural areas as it is to cities — if not more so, as we encourage work-from-home as a way to reduce traffic congestion. We need to do everything we can on the state level to ensure this coming broadband revolution benefits all the communities of Washington.”

Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, the chair of the Senate Energy, Environment & Technology Committee and a cosponsor of the bill, added: “The most important thing for economic growth in the rural parts of our state is high-quality, affordable access to broadband. Too many of our small communities and rural areas are still without it and changing that is a top priority for the Senate Democratic Caucus and many others across the aisle. The federal government recognizes the importance and for many years there’s been talk about it at the state level, but now we’re boldly developing a system to move forward.”

SB 5935 follows federal standards in setting a target for high-speed service of at least 25 megabits per second for download speeds, and upload speeds of at least 3 megabits per second. The Office on Broadband Access will coordinate with local governments, public and private entities and utilities to develop broadband deployment strategies. It will develop a model ordinance for local governments for permitting of new facilities, and will study the possibility of tax credits to encourage deployment in underserved areas.

The office also will develop a grant program for local governments and make recommendations for grant projects. Other provisions of the bill require cities to develop a permitting process for new telecommunications facilities and to generally prohibit conditional land-use permits except in cases of large facilities or conflicts with community design standards. Rural port districts and the Kitsap Public Utility District would be allowed to offer broadband service.