With Seattle Mayor Ed Murray preparing to release a new feasibility study on municipal broadband, an activist campaign is hoping to build widespread support for a high-speed public network.
Roughly a year ago, a group of friends and acquaintances began meeting up for happy-hour drinks in Seattle — but not to gab about work or dating or the Mariners.
What brought them together was whether and how Seattle can treat broadband Internet access like a public utility by providing high-speed connections to every home.
“We came up with the most ridiculous name we could, something like “The Municipal Broadband Dreamers Society Happy Hour Friday Club,” Sabrina Roach recalled.
The memory made Roach chuckle recently, but she and her friends are serious about municipal broadband. What started during a happy hour has since grown into a public-awareness campaign called Upgrade Seattle, with a website and a plan to impact this year’s Seattle City Council elections.
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The group says municipal broadband would ensure equal access to the Web across the city’s many neighborhoods and more fair pricing. “Seattle is ready,” the website asserts.
Whether its campaign gains widespread relevance may depend on the findings of a feasibility study commissioned by Mayor Ed Murray’s administration. A report on the study by Columbia Telecommunications Corporation (CTC) is to be released this month.
“I believe, with the Murray administration, we have an opportunity to push for this,” said Roach, who has been coordinating Upgrade Seattle because her employer, Brown Paper Tickets, pays her to work on communications and social-equity campaigns.
Murray’s study won’t be the city’s first to look at municipal broadband. There were similar reports in 2005, 2007 and 2011, under then-mayors Greg Nickels and Mike McGinn. The 2005 report warned that “private markets, left alone, are unlikely to favor Seattle.” The 2011 report recommended a $700 million-plus investment in building a community broadband network.
So why is the city paying CTC $180,000 for yet another take on the same question?
Seattle’s Chief Technology Officer Michael Mattmiller, who joined Murray’s team last June from Microsoft’s cloud-privacy division, says market conditions are different now.
“We recognized that the world has changed since then,” Mattmiller said.
One change is President Obama has put his weight behind community broadband networks — cities and counties offering high-speed Internet access in competition with providers like Comcast and CenturyLink.
In January, the president made a speech in Cedar Falls, Iowa, which recently upgraded with new optical-fiber technology to one-gigabit-per-second Internet.
“Folks around the nation want these broadband networks,” he said. “They’re good for business. They’re good for communities. They’re good for schools. And they’re good for the marketplace because they promote efficiency and competition.”
Another way the world has changed is Seattle’s economy is booming.
When McGinn was mayor, he hoped to do more than create a community network like Cedar Falls and, closer to home, like Tacoma, he now says.
McGinn wanted to secure a property-tax levy to pay for universal high-speed access, so that turning on the Internet would be like turning on the water faucet. Building a citywide, city-operated network had been one of his 2009 campaign promises.
But $700 million was too high a price at the time, says McGinn, noting that the city put a $290 million seawall-replacement bond measure on the ballot in 2012.
“We were in the midst of a recession and we were looking at other property-tax needs,” he said.
McGinn was determined to do something, nonetheless. When a startup called Gigabit Squared said it would use existing, city-owned optical fiber lines to provide superfast broadband in 12 neighborhoods, his administration grabbed the opportunity.
The plan flopped: By 2014, Gigabit Squared was no more, with the company saying it had been unable to secure financing for its partnership with Seattle.
3 parts to policy
These days the local economy is humming and private providers are adding new service in some neighborhoods. Murray, unveiling a three-pronged broadband policy last June, said he would help the providers along by “reducing regulatory barriers.”
The mayor last August did away with a Seattle Department of Transportation rule hampering CenturyLink’s ability to install curbside utility cabinets in residential neighborhoods. In March, Murray and the council scrapped the city’s cable-franchise district system, which had divvied Seattle up among cable-TV and Internet providers.
The idea, Mattmiller said, is to encourage more competition among providers in Seattle. For too long, Comcast and CenturyLink have enjoyed a near-monopoly.
The red-tape cutting is already working, according to Mattmiller. CenturyLink has rolled out gigabit service to 45,000 homes in the Ballard neighborhood, he said.
The second prong in Murray’s approach is public-private partnerships, Mattmiller said, noting that Cascade Networks has begun leasing city-owned fiber to provide Wi-Fi access in the Chinatown International District.
But Upgrade Seattle campaigners say the most important prong is municipal broadband, because access remains uneven.
People in some Seattle neighborhoods enjoy more options, lower prices and faster speeds than those elsewhere, said Inye Wokoma, an artist and media producer.
“The wealthier residential and business communities have better access,” Wokoma said. “They can afford to pay more, so that’s where the companies go. That makes sense, but … someone in South Park should be able to communicate like someone in South Lake Union.”
Joaquin Uy, an Upgrade Seattle booster who serves on the board of the Filipino Community Center, doubts that reducing regulatory barriers will solve the problem.
The city’s incumbent providers — Comcast, CenturyLink and Wave Broadband — “have a leg up” on other companies and will likely still dominate, Uy said.
While Upgrade Seattle’s organizers are seeking widespread support, they believe municipal broadband will particularly benefit low-income immigrants and young people who need the Internet to get ahead but who live in neighborhoods with less access.
Washington Bus, an advocacy organization that involves young people with local politics, isn’t directly involved with Upgrade Seattle. But Executive Director Toby Crittenden says young Seattle activists likely will warm to the campaign.
The Internet is becoming more important with each generation, and though Seattle is a leading tech-business city, research has shown Seattle natives are lagging behind transplants, Crittenden says.
“You see that young people growing up in Seattle are gaining less education and making less money,” he said. “Upgrade Seattle talking about treating broadband like a public utility could help bridge that divide.”
Mattmiller says he doesn’t know how much the city can afford to spend on municipal broadband if officials pursue that route. “I don’t have a dollar figure in mind,” he said. “We’re going to have a conversation with several departments once we get the report.”
But there are signs Murray could go where no Seattle mayor has gone before. Mattmiller last year visited Chattanooga, Tenn., which runs a public gigabit network.
Still, Comcast and CenturyLink, campaign donors to Murray and other local politicians, will contest any attempt to create a public network, and no U.S. city as large as Seattle has yet moved to municipal broadband.
“We currently offer speeds of up to one gigabit per second for residents in parts of Seattle … thanks to the elimination of local policies that were impeding deployment,” CenturyLink spokeswoman Linda Johnson said, arguing that municipal-owned broadband networks are a bad investment because they have “high failure rates.”
Comcast spokesman Steve Kipp said the company is proud of its work promoting digital equity in the city, including signing up more than 20,000 customers for Internet Essentials, a low-cost broadband service, and providing free connections at community centers, libraries, schools and nonprofits.