Internet access is vital to anyone looking to get a job, communicate with their family, or for things as simple as reading the news, watching movies, or shopping. It is also essential to running a small business. Unfortunately, with more than half of the residents of Thurston County living outside of city limits, broadband internet options are limited (or often don’t exist at all).
Companies like Comcast and CenturyLink refuse to expand their networks into rural areas, citing lack of a profitable return on their investment. This leaves most residents of the county with no true high-speed broadband options.
Over the past decade, nearly every major internet and mobile provider in the country has suffered from some sort of data breach or leak, including Thurston County’s biggest internet provider, Comcast. Additionally, we now know that the federal government often spies on US citizens’ internet activities, usually without a warrant. The ACLU recently reported that one of the only ways to protect privacy and security is with public municipal broadband projects.
With recent rollbacks of FCC “net neutrality” provisions, Comcast and other large corporations are now intent on slowing speeds of their competitors’ websites, such as Netflix and YouTube. Their goal is to create a “tiered” system, where you pay more to access certain websites and services, with limited or no access to competitors’ websites.
In order to guarantee access, privacy, security, and speed, we must bring the Public Utility District into the 21st century by beginning to offer wholesale broadband internet access via a modern-day version of the “rural electrification” programs of the 1930s and 1940s.
Linemen installing rural power lines in 1935, National Archives
Not only would this create good-paying union jobs, but a PUD-run network could be operated affordably on fiber optic network infrastructure that already exists. While it’s true that the PUD cannot offer direct residential service, it can offer wholesale service to municipalities and organizations which can then offer residential service in direct competition with corporate monopolies like Comcast.
The PUD should coordinate with these local municipalities, as well as co-ops and non-profits, to form “public-public” partnerships and help bring public broadband to Thurston County. Using mesh networks and other advancements in technology, the PUD could keep infrastructure, buildout and equipment costs down. In fact, according to the PUD’s own 2015 study, a public broadband network would be profitable within five years. Any limitations in funding are set by the PUD itself, and are not part of state law.
Thurston County is surrounded by successful public power utility districts, and has a handful of large transmission lines operated by Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), the Department of Energy agency responsible for marketing nearly carbon-free electricity generated by 31 federal hydroelectric projects. So why are we one of the only counties in the state getting almost all of our electricity from Puget Sound Energy, a for-profit private corporation? PSE generates a majority of their electricity from coal, natural gas, and diesel fuel. Additionally, PSE is owned by an Australian investment bank, run by their nation’s highest-paid CEO; almost none of their $300 million in yearly profits are reinvested here in Thurston County. The investment bank that owns PSE has been looking to sell PSE to Chinese investors, which have even less of a regard for worker safety and environmental protections.
Why aren’t we looking into cleaner, more sustainable methods for generating electricity? And why are we paying investment bankers instead of investing in the working families of Thurston County? In neighboring Pierce County, PSE is embroiled in a controversial project to build a fracked gas tank on Puyallup Tribal land—which is also a Federal Superfund Site—just steps from the water. They have not obtained a permit for this project or permission from the Puyallup Tribe, yet continue to build anyway. Is this the kind of behavior we want to see from those managing our electrical grid?
PSE keeps their service teams two counties and over four hours away. In the event of a wind storm or other catastrophic event, much of Thurston County would be without power for at least a day. Additionally, PSE outsources a majority of their work to non-union companies. Does anyone else think this seems like poor planning, and a lack of dedication to Thurston County families?
While the 2012 Public Power Initiative may have failed, Thurston County residents are not finished asking these important questions. And while PSE poured record-setting millions of dollars into the 2012 election—over $660,000 into political opposition of public power, with nearly $9,000 directly to my opponent—residents of Thurston County deserve better.
The PUD should not only begin to generate its own power for use in running the existing water systems, but make a plan to move PUD offices to solar and wind power, and offer to assist in green sustainability projects around the county. We should also begin a plan to source some of our electrical power from BPA, moving the PUD away from fossil fuels.
Clean & Affordable Water
Currently, Thurston County has a mix of water systems managed by the Public Utility District, Thurston County Public Water Systems, and various other municipalities and private organizations. While the PUD’s system is quite efficient and affordable for most residents, there are a few small changes which would lead to big improvements.
One way we could cut costs is to absorb the Thurston County water systems and workers. This would create a larger overall system which the PUD could then run more efficiently, creating significant savings for the PUD customers and customers of the County’s system due to basic rules of economies of scale.
We should also look into expanding groundwater contamination inspection and treatment, and other ways the PUD can help protect residents and water systems across the county. Full-spectrum tests of not only nitrate levels and other basics, but contamination from historical pollution and other causes need to be taken into consideration.
Another key step the PUD could take in increasing efficiency would be to move to run all water systems on solar and wind power, managed by the PUD. This would mean our water would be run on 100% green energy, not on power generated by burning coal and other fossil fuels. It also would mean that when PSE has a power outage, Thurston PUD customers would still have running water.
Conservation & Sustainability
With Thurston County projected to have major growth over the next decade, it’s important to emphasize conservation as one way to keep utility bills low and growth sustainable. Providing free “audits” to home and business owners in the county, as well as programs to incentivize conservation via modernization, are just two examples of areas where the PUD can help keep our community equitable.
Educating residents on ways to save, such as installing smart thermometers, LED bulbs, energy efficient appliances and modern plumbing and fixtures should be the top priority of the PUD. The PUD should take full advantage of federal, state and local programs to provide cash rebates to residents who take pre-emptive steps towards making their homes and businesses more environmentally friendly.
This starts with the PUD itself. If elected, one of my first acts will be an environmental and sustainability audit of the PUD’s offices and infrastructure to ensure everything is not only operating to specified requirements and recommendations, but exceeding them. We need to set an example for the rest of the county.
In addition to lowering overall costs, the PUD should do more to inform lower-income and at-risk residents, such as the elderly or disabled, of existing programs and non-profits to assist with their monthly bills. Currently, the PUD only offers a $50 per year waiver—this is unacceptable when many are facing hundreds or thousands of dollars in utility bills, and multiple shutoff notices.
Nobody should have to face going without clean drinking water, electricity, heat, or other utilities simply because they don’t have the money. It’s our responsibility as a society to take care of those who have little to nothing, or don’t have the ability to take care of themselves.
Additionally, the PUD should investigate partnering with municipalities to assist with rolling out free public WiFi in city cores. While this has an obvious benefit of increased foot traffic for local businesses and parks, it will also provide a valuable public service. Those who don’t have access to broadband internet, such as lower-income families, students, and those without stable housing, rely on access to the internet for basic research and getting much-needed social services.
Workers & Communities
As a government entity, the PUD should exist for the benefit of working people and the residents of Thurston County. If elected, I will review all contracts, sources, and policies to ensure that the PUD sources everything it can—from office and building materials to contract workers—from co-op and union suppliers.
I will also put forward a proposal that the employees and staff of the PUD are paid (at minimum) a family wage, tied to inflation, productivity, and the cost of living. This proposal will include that all PUD workers are provided full benefits, including opportunities for continued education, free childcare, paid sick leave, paid family leave, paid vacation, and paid parental leave (covering maternity, paternity, and adoption).
Additionally, I will ensure that the PUD is complying with all state laws, directives and orders regarding the release of utility customer information. It is a major breach of trust to target customers for immigration purposes, effectively taking part in ripping families and communities apart.
The PUD exists to provide an essential public service to everyone in the community.
These are just a handful of ideas we hope to bring to the PUD, but we can’t win this race alone: this campaign will depend on an active and vocal grassroots movement to protect and strengthen our Public Utility District. Can we count on you?