After hundreds of meetings, phone calls and emails plus testimony by WITA
members at dozens of legislative hearings the State Universal Communications
Fund has been extended for an additional five years.  While there are still
some budget issues to be resolved, hopefully during next year’s legislative
session, we should all take time to celebrate this monumental occasion.

Mike Oblizalo, Rick Vitzthum, Steve Appelo, Dan Coyne and Skip Haynes were
able to join others who supported SSB 5511 when Governor Inslee signed it
into law last Monday.  In addition to extending the State Fund it allows
those funds to be used for maintenance and deployment of broadband; the fund
was originally established to support only voice service.  It also gives the
UTC the ability to remove the urban rate floor as one of the criteria for
fund distributions.  

Thank you again to everyone who helped make this happen!

OLYMPIA — Over the next two years, Washington plans to lend $14.44 million and give another $7.11 million to public agencies, tribes and businesses to bring high-speed internet to rural areas and Indian reservations.

The money, set aside in the new two-year capital budget, is a fraction of the $1 billion the Washington Independent Telecommunications Association estimates will be needed to blanket the state with service that meets the federal definition of high-speed internet.

Because the funding will be mostly loans, the program may not do much to introduce internet to isolated areas with few paying customers, the association’s executive director, Betty Buckley, said May 2.

“If we could make money or even repay a loan, we’d have done it already,” said Buckley, who represents 18 small companies that serve rural areas.

“We are cutting out the really remote areas,” she said. “Everyone wants to make rural broadband happen, but no one wants to pay for it.”

Opening an office in the Department of Commerce to oversee broadband expansion received bipartisan support from legislators. Lawmakers also directed the state’s public works board to distribute $21.55 million for high-speed internet projects.

Presumably, legislators will continue to allocate more money in future budgets, and Gov. Jay Inslee’s office likely will advocate a larger share to put in grants, according to an adviser.

Early in the session, the governor’s office suggested a 50-50 split between loans and grants. In most unserved areas, only grants will make sense, according to the adviser.

The rules will favor projects on tribal lands, in rural counties or urban areas with high unemployment or low incomes. An internet service provider will have a chance to object to a competitor getting public money.

The state has set a goal of making high-speed internet available to every home and business by 2024. The Federal Communications Commission defines high-speed internet as download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second.

Netflix, the video provider, recommends the slower 5 megabits per second to view movies in high-definition and 25 megabits per second for “ultra high-definition.”

The USDA awards grants to bring “sufficient” internet service to rural areas. The agency defines sufficient as 10 megabits per second.

“We can have a brand-new federally funded service and layer state money right on top of it,” Buckley said.

In a really tough budgetary year, we are happy to be walking away with any level of funding for broadband so I would chalk it up as a win. In the future we will likely continue to advocate for a greater percentage of overall funding to be in grants.

The definition of broadband internet continues to evolve, according to a USDA report released Tuesday. As technology advances, famers likely will need faster internet speeds, the report states.

The Washington Farm Bureau put a high priority on passing the rural broadband bill. According to the FCC’s latest survey, nearly all the state’s 6 million urban residents can have high-speed internet at their homes or businesses. But nearly 1 in 10 of the state’s 1 million rural residents can’t.

“We’re very excited it passed,” Farm Bureau associate director of government relations Bre Elsey said. “It’s really just a start.”

Elsey said she would not be surprised if the ratio of loans to grants was revised as lawmakers see the results of the program. She also said she wouldn’t be surprised if the standards for internet speeds change. “It’s hard to hit a target when the goalpost keeps moving,” she said.

As of the end of 2016, 24 million Americans did not access to high-speed internet at a fixed location, according to the FCC. Some have mobile internet service, but that might not be reliable enough or fast enough to keep up, according to the USDA report.

The USDA said there isn’t enough information available to estimate how much bringing high-speed internet to unserved areas would cost. In places with few customers, it’s unlikely internet providers will extend service to the last mile, so rural broadband may need to follow the example of rural electrification, according to the report.

“Broadband in rural America will be as transformative in the 21st century as rural electrification was in the last century,” USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said in the report.

Read the original article here

It’s cherry blossom time in Olympia but that’s not all that’s making us smile.  After years of hard work by the WITA team, including the members who have been so generous with their time and information, we are on the precipice of passing legislation that includes a five year extension to the State Universal Communications Fund.  The bills containing that extension, what I normally refer to as the Governor’s broadband bills, are on track to get to the Governor’s desk for his signature by the end of April.  Staff from the UTC contacted us to see if we would be willing to consider a one year continuation of the current process for distributing dollars as new rules will take months to promulgate.  As part of that one year continuation we are hopeful that the UTC will be willing to waive their rate floor rule as it appears the FCC is set to do that as well.  Rick Finnigan and Rick Vitzthum have been authorized by the board to discuss these issues with the UTC on WITA’s behalf. 

In anticipation of the passage of the five year extension of the fund we are moving the time of the April 15th meeting of the Active Members of the Board to 4pm.  I’ll send details as soon as we have a location identified.

Save the Dates!

April 142019
WITSA Fundraiser in our own suite at Mariner Stadium!
Thank you to Root Sports for donating this suite!

June 5-7, 2019
OTA/WITA Annual Meeting, Salishan
Gleneden Beach, OR

October 14– 16, 2019
Leadership Conference/Outside Plant/Quarterly Meeting
Alderbrook, Union, WA

January 22, 2020
Quarterly Meeting/Holiday Dinner
Olympia, WA

House ITEC Committee Passes Bill with Ten-Year Extension to the State Fund!

On a unanimous voice vote the House Innovation, Technology and Economic Development Committee passed the Governor’s broadband bill, HB 1498, after amending it to include a ten-year extension of the State Universal Communications Fund. The original bill included a five-year extension. Rep. Sharon Wylie (D – Vancouver) offered the amendment so that HB 1498 would match the bill she had sponsored to extend the fund by ten years. That bill, HB 1373, will not be voted out of committee.

Yesterday the Senate Energy, Environment and Technology Committee passed an identical version of the House bill. That version still contains a five-year extension of the fund. The Governor’s bill still contains some troubling provisions including the creation of a state broadband grant and loan program which could be used to overbuild some of areas now served by WITA members at speeds of 10/1. We are working to amend that language to ensure that limited state dollars are targeted at areas which have no service. However, our highest priorities are to ensure the extension of the state fund and changes to the qualifications for drawing from that fund so that all our members can benefit from this program.

All of this occurred during the snowiest week in Olympia history. Many people reported 18 or more inches of snow at their homes, dozens of homes were without electricity and state government was shut down on Monday. Some legislative staff were unable to make it to work which resulted in the systems designed to track bills and amendments being out-of-date and incomplete. Dan Coyne and made it to the Capitol every day while Betty Buckley was unable to return from her ranch in eastern Washington due to heavy snow and pass closures. Shellie Burnham did a bit of work from home but also made it to her office, which is a block from the Capitol, every day.

We hope you’re all staying warm and safe!

WITA started the new session off with a huge bang not only thanks to our members but also thanks to our Member Coordinator, Shellie Burnham, who did a stellar job of taking care of all the details. On January 21st and 22nd WITA members were in town to meet with legislators, have a board meeting and kick off the new session with a Holiday Gathering. While other lobbying groups were struggling to get appointments on what turned out to be two of the busiest days of session, Shellie kept us busy with so many meetings that we often had to split the group with Dan Coyne going off in one direction and another group heading in another direction with me. Mike Oblizalo ended up handling one meeting by himself, something we try to avoid but we knew Mike was up for it. By the end of those two days we’d met with 25 legislators including almost every member of the House Committee on Innovation, Technology and Economic Development (ITEC).

Shellie’s other duties include coordinating all our conferences, trainings and quarterly meetings. She does our banking, tracks membership dues, files all our reports with the Public Disclosure Commission, and handles our WITA Scholarship process from pulling the committee together in the spring to processing applications to putting the winners on our website. As we saw last week, she also schedules our meetings and ensures we have everything we need to make those meetings successful. As the former Executive Assistant to the Director of the Department of Revenue Shellie has compiled a black binder full of contact information for everyone even remotely connected to state government. That means whenever I need to find someone or something, Shellie has me covered.

Shellie is a contract employee working for a few lucky lobbyists including her former boss at the Department of Revenue. Shellie and her husband live in Tenino where she went to school with Stefanie Peterson. All of this is just a happy coincidence as I connected with Shellie through a job listing I’d sent out on a lobbyist listserv.
Shellie has worked with WITA for over three years now and in that time her job has evolved as I discover more and more of her talents.

WITA Scholarship Applications Open!
Do you have a dependent student currently enrolled or going to be enrolled in college?
Do you work full-time for a WITA member company or Associate Member company in WA State?
If you answered, yes, have your student apply today. WITSA gives away thousands of dollars every year in scholarships!

For more information, criteria eligibility, and application go to our scholarship page.

This week my goal was to get thirty signatures on our bill. That effort was interrupted by Governor Inslee’s press conference where he announced his broadband bill. WITA is one of the few organizations that has been involved in drafting this bill and so I was invited to attend. After the formal presentations, and after the cameras had been turned off, I took the opportunity to talk with reporters about some of their questions. Which resulted in at least one camera being turned back on.

Then it was back to gathering signatures. The process of making legislation is designed to be ponderous and time consuming to weed out frivolous bills. The hearing process and session deadlines make the process even more challenging which is why only a small percentage of bills get to the Governor’s desk for his signature. Only a legislator can introduce legislation which means state agencies and the Governor have to find someone to sponsor their ideas, just like everyone else.

Rep. Sharon Wylie (D – Vancouver) is sponsoring the legislation we need to extend the State Universal Communications Fund. Rep. Norma Smith (R – Camano Island) is the first co-sponsor. Rep. Smith’s district includes Whidbey Island and she’s the most senior member Republican member of the committee which will hear our bill.

By late Thursday we had gathered two dozen signatures including almost everyone who represents one of our members, two-thirds of the members of the committee which will hear the bill in the House, seven members of the Appropriations committee which will also hear the bill and the House Majority Leader. It’s a good mix of Republicans and Democrats, all of whom have voted on and supported this issue in the past. Instead of pursuing a few more signatures I decided to “drop” the bill a day early to ensure that it makes it onto the House Bill Introductions sheet this Monday. That will enable us to give out a specific bill number during out meetings with legislators. Besides, there are only twenty-four lines on the signature sheet so I added one more signature for a total of twenty-five and called it good.

This coming Monday and Tuesday we will have a chance to meet with new members to the legislators, along with some of our old friends, to ensure their support for the bill.

The past few days have felt like legislative session.  Dan Coyne and I have talked with dozens of legislators as we continue to work on securing an extension of the state universal communications fund.  There will be two pieces of legislation introduced in January, either of which will accomplish our goal.  The first is the Governor’s Broadband bill which will include several sections including a five year extension of the state fund.  The second bill will be introduced at our request and will contain a ten year extension of the fund.  Rep. Sharon Wylie (D-Vancouver) has agreed to sponsor this bill and Rep. Norma Smith (R – Camano Island) will be the first co-sponsor.  These first two sponsors are important because they establish that we have bi-partisan support for our effort and also support from veteran legislators.  Both representatives are on the House committee through which our bill will have to pass and both have agreed to help us move the bill forward.  There are several steps in this process, each with a  deadline.  Here’s a link to a website that gives more information if you would like to learn a bit more about this process.

Our next steps include getting a sponsor for our bill in the Senate and adding more names to the list of bill sponsors.  The more names the better.  We’ll also be working on handouts for each company to share with their local representatives, in person if at all possible.


Legislative session begins on January 14th and we’ll be ready.  Shellie Burnham will be setting up meetings for those of you who can join us in Olympia, as the group from Consolidated Communications did last year.


Welcome to a fresh new look for the WITA website with pictures and content courtesy of our members.  We’ve also changed up some features to put more emphasis on our Premier Associate Members including more banner advertising and an opportunity for those members to get in front of our phone company members with news about what’s happening at their companies.  This month we’re featuring a new staff person at one of our oldest Premier Members, Unitel. We hope you enjoy this new look for WITA and hope that you’ll help our content stay fresh by sending us stories about new projects, services and staff at your company.


UNITEL welcomes Matt Gilbert as Risk Advisor

UNITEL Insurance recently welcomed Matt Gilbert to the sales team as a Risk Advisor. Gilbert joined the UNITEL division of UNICO Group focusing on telecommunication services. UNICO is a full-service insurance agency with services ranging from telecommunications, workers’ comp, employee benefits to personal insurance, financial planning, human resources solutions and wellness.

“I have spent the last 12 years in the industry understanding people, finding custom solutions and aligning myself into a position to listen,” said Matt Gilbert. “My approach to servicing our clients is to listen to the evolving market, recent issues, industry challenges to provide solutions that best fit their needs.”

UNITEL has been providing risk solutions to the telecommunications industry since 2004 and now serves over 600 companies across the country.  “We are excited to expand our knowledge and geographic reach. We are thrilled to have Matt join our team,” said Ric Stoakes, EVP of UNITEL. “Matt has been in the telecommunications industry for a long time and his knowledge and passion are a tremendous asset for our clients as well as for our growing team.”

Gilbert is on the Board for WTA and serves as the Chairman of the Associate Member Committee. He is also involved with NTCA with their associate members advisory council.

Matt grew up in SW Michigan and graduated from Grand Valley State University. Currently, he and his wife, Ashleigh, reside in Virginia with their two children.

National News 

It turns out that the article Ryan Blethen wrote about our members made it into US News and World Reports.  Way to go WhidbeyTel and Pioneer!  Many thanks also to Eric Trump who spent a great deal of time with Ryan as well.  Check out the article here: