TWO decades ago, Seattle and a consortium of public agencies began building a network of superfast fiber cable. It was intended to lower municipal telecom costs and anticipated the upcoming digital century. Speed brings innovation; the future demanded both.
Every public school, the University of Washington, city offices and other public agencies are now connected to the 530-mile network. But the network stops short of most homes and businesses, a gap known in the industry as the difficult and expensive “last mile.”
As a candidate four years ago, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn led voters to believe he would finish that last mile. It was a core campaign pledge. He waxed eloquently about the value of a citywide broadband network, and criticized then-Mayor Greg Nickels for “a lack of vision and political will” to make it happen.
Fast forward to last week, 42 months into McGinn’s term. His proposal to create city broadband utility department has evaporated. So has his talk of asking voters to finance a citywide network.
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The closest thing to broadband-for-all — free Wi-Fi in the University District and Columbia City — was unplugged last year.
Instead, the city formed a public-private partnership with Gigabit Squared to lease unused parts of the network. It cherry-picks affluent areas — South Lake Union, Laurelhurst, Ballard — that are hardly underserved now, as well as a few poorer neighborhoods.
Nonetheless, McGinn boasts about the deal. “We’re one step closer to bringing gigabit speed broadband to Seattle,” McGinn said in a Gigabit Squared news release last week, when the pricing was announced.
That obscures the fact at least three companies already provide ultrafast service, even as the mayor touts a future competitor. The Gigabit deal isn’t awful: Competitive pressure lowers the market price, and more ultrafast broadband is good for the city.
But campaign promises matter. McGinn’s big idea from 2009 was expensive, and telecom companies would have fought it. Instead of fighting for this campaign pledge, McGinn spent two years fighting the Highway 99 tunnel.
On broadband, McGinn promised big, delivered small and hopes voters won’t notice the difference this election.