April 15, 2019
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Microsoft: Federal government greatly underestimates number of Americans without high-speed internet

Microsoft is challenging the federal government’s estimate of how many Americans lack access to broadband internet, and advocating for a new method to track the data, The Puget Sound Business Journal reported recently.

The Federal Communications Commission uses an estimate of about 25 million. But Microsoft reported on its blog April 8 that the true number is about 163 million.

“Getting these numbers right is vitally important,” Chief Data Analytics Officer John Kahan of Microsoft wrote. “This data is used by federal, state and local agencies to decide where to target public funds dedicated to closing this broadband gap. That means millions of Americans already lacking access to broadband have been made invisible, substantially decreasing the likelihood of additional broadband funding or much needed broadband service.”

And this service is critical, from telemedicine to education. Counties with the highest unemployment also have lower broadband usage, the company reports.

Microsoft examined FCC subscription data, Pew Research and also talked to many of the rural Americans as part of its Airband Initiative, which aims to increase connectivity in rural and underserved areas.

Washington’s Ferry County made a cameo appearance in the blog. FCC data shows that 100 percent of Ferry County residents have access to broadband, the company reported. But the Microsoft data shows about 2 percent of the county is using broadband. Local officials also told the company that very few people have access.

Citing this and other examples across the country, Kahan notes “the unescapable conclusion that today there exists no accurate, comprehensive and public estimate of broadband coverage in the United States.”

Kahan highlights “two fundamental problems” with how the data is collected now. First, the questions on the form used by the FCC to collect data are too broad and asks providers if they could provide service. And second, the lack of location specificity also poses challenges. For example, if one person has coverage in a census block, then that entire census tract is counted as having service.

The company recommends several changes to encourage more accurate data collection. The issue was discussed in the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, where U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-WA, is the ranking member.

Better access to broadband is a priority of the AWB Rural Jobs Task Force. To learn more or get involved, please contact Mike Ennis at MikeE@awb.org or 360.943.1600.

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Spring Meeting
State Funding

Lifting levy lid violates spirit of McCleary deal

By The Columbian Editorial Board

Efforts in the Legislature to remove a lid on local school levies represent a step backward for school funding in Washington. Rather than invite a return to inequitable funding and open the door for lawsuits, lawmakers should provide state funding where necessary and adhere to a hard-fought agreement.

Following the 2012 state Supreme Court ruling in McCleary v. Washington, lawmakers took five years to hammer out a compromise in which the state would fully fund public K-12 education. That compromise limited local levies to $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed property value or $1,500 per student, whichever is less.

That was the promise lawmakers gave to taxpayers in 2017 -- state property taxes would increase in order for the Legislature to live up to its "paramount duty" of funding basic education. In exchange, local levies would decrease. The adjustments would prevent inequalities between districts that were at the heart of the McCleary decision; local levies had been used to fund basic expenses such as teacher salaries, creating disparities between wealthy districts and poor districts.

Now, school districts want the Legislature to keep both state and local property taxes high. Senate Bill 5313 would allow districts to tax up to $2.50 per $1,000 in assessed value -- a 67 percent increase from the current law -- or $2,500 per student, depending on a district's enrollment.

Passage of such a plan would put the state on the road to McCleary 2.0. It would invite the return of an unfair funding system that triggered the lawsuit in the first place and that had the amenities of a public education determined by a student's ZIP code.

Read the full editorial in The Columbian
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