Speaking to broadband officials, Mayor Ed Murray reiterated his position that building out a municipal broadband would be too expensive for the city to pursue alone — and that a public-private partnership would work better.

Share story

The best way to expand Internet access in Seattle is through public-private partnerships, Mayor Ed Murray said at a regional broadband conference Monday.

The mayor reiterated the position he formed after a city-commissioned study released last summer showed it would cost between $480 million and $665 million to build out a municipal-broadband network across the city. That price tag is less than previously estimated, but the mayor said it was still too much to be feasible.

“When I came into office, I was very excited about the possibility of municipal broadband until the study came back and indicated it would be literally the largest tax increase in Seattle,” Murray said Monday at the conference, co-hosted by the nonprofit Next Century Cities and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The mayor’s office later clarified that financing a municipal broadband system would result in one of the largest tax increases in the city. The $930 million Move Seattle transportation levy approved by voters last fall may be bigger, depending on the exact cost of municipal broadband.

Some residents and interest groups have long pushed for a city-run broadband network, saying it would be less expensive than services from private providers and would help reduce access inequality, known as “the digital divide.”

In Seattle, 93,000 homes — about 15 percent of the city’s households — don’t have access to the Internet. Many are occupied by people with low incomes, the mayor said.

A municipal network could help bridge that divide by offering high-speed, affordable Internet access across the city, said Devin Glaser, a policy analyst with Upgrade Seattle, which is working to muster support for a city-run network.

“We just passed a $930 million transportation levy for much-needed things, and the broadband package would be half the price of what was just passed,” Glaser said.

After the city study was released, Seattle launched the Digital Equity Initiative, which will be announcing “significant programs” in about a week, Murray said.

The city also partnered with Google to lend people Wi-Fi hot-spot devices through the Seattle Public Library, a program Murray said was popular on its first day.

Seattle works with various companies, including telecommunications giants CenturyLink and Comcast, to expand service across the city.

The city has said it is working to increase competition in the area, which has long been dominated by Century­Link and Comcast. Among other things, the city said it is getting rid of some regulatory barriers.

Glaser acknowledged that the city is making efforts to increase access, saying “all momentum is good.” But it’s not enough, he said, to create a level playing field.

Murray hasn’t totally ruled out the idea of a municipal broadband system.

“There may be strategies that would work. And that may be ultimately the best way to solve the issue of the divide,” he said Monday. “We’re not going to be able to do it or a lot of things unless we see an aggressive approach by the federal government to work with local jurisdictions to make that possible.”

The federal government did finance about 230 broadband projects nationwide through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Those funds are now spent, but municipalities can apply for smaller grants through other federal agencies, said Lawrence E. Strickling, assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information.

Strickling said Monday the federal government helps municipalities by providing guides to funding and other technical expertise. Each community needs to make its own choice about public versus private broadband, he said.

“We advocate that it is one of the options that ought to be available for communities,” he said of municipal broadband. “A community always has an ability to negotiate stronger (with private partners) when there are other options.”

Murray said the city will continue working on public-private partnerships, not just for infrastructure but also because “technology is changing so fast” and private companies can help create nimble business models.