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Seattle's shiny economic future depends on city-owned broadband

Why we need city-owned broadband to create the thriving, competitive city we all think we have coming.

Seattle moved out of character this winter, as the “12th Man" fanfare drew everyone into the excitement of the Seahawks' Superbowl win. How did it happen? Paul Allen took a risk and hired a new coach named Pete Carroll, who brought the city a California (USC) attitude about winning: smart, bold, upbeat and not afraid to visualize greatness for himself and his team.

Pete turned an aging failing system into the youngest, most dynamic team in the NFL. We all got to come along for the ride.

Today, Seattle faces a choice that may again take it out of its comfort zone: Whether to grow and maintain its own broadband Internet system, or give in to the monopoly cable and telecom providers who are pressuring the city not to move forward with its own system.

On Wednesday morning, Mayor Ed Murray laid out the choice as he sees it in a blog post, leaning heavily toward a de-regulated broadband system that works for providers like Comcast and CenturyLink in exchange for concessions in the form of better service. City-owned broadband, as he described it, is still merely an "option," albeit one he is willing to "help lead the way" toward.

The mayor appears to favor a "let's see what they can do" approach when it comes to broadband providers, but the city and its citizens have already spent the last ten years learning exactly what they will do: Invest as little as possible, provide inferior bandwidths and charge as much as possible. There is no mystery about their formula for putting shareholders ahead of customers.

Seattle is facing a moment of civic cognitive dissonance as years of self-imaging collide with the truth about its lack of action. The city has verbally committed to its own broadband for almost a decade now, with a serious amount of city-owned glass fiber already in the ground. But for one reason and then another, this has never gotten past the political happy-talk stage. Meanwhile, other cities and even whole countries have leapfrogged the U.S. and Seattle, leaving both in the technological dust.

Last Thursday’s New York Times described a business couple who moved from Seattle to Mt. Vernon, Wash., to escape paying $985 per month for poor broadband service. In Mount Vernon, they now pay just $250 per month for significantly faster high-speed broadband. This little town in the Skagit Valley, it turns out, has opted to have its own broadband, and so take control of its own destiny. So, in fact, has neighboring San Juan County, a handful of islands with a population that wouldn’t fill a fifth of the Seahawks’ stadium.

This issue trumps every other issue in town, for one simple reason: It enables them all.

What does Seattle think of as its strongest sectors five or ten years from now? Biotechnology? Needs broadband. Software? Needs broadband. Medicine? Cancer Care? Higher Education? Research? Wireless Apps? Gaming? These seem to be the city's pride today, and its ideas for growth tomorrow.

All of these depend increasingly on having broadband. And, as the rest of the world moves past Seattle, the city will lose appeal to people and companies that know and demand this, and who will therefore go somewhere else.

It doesn’t have to be this way. So here, having spent the last 20 years or so studying this issue, I’ll make a bold prediction: No matter what Seattle might spend on improving and managing its own high-speed broadband system, that money will come back to the city in spades -- in taxes, in urban growth, in educational programs, in new companies and residents, in obtaining the future the city wants.

But there it is again: What does Seattle want to be?

For lack of a defining vision (I’m sorry, but “Emerald City” isn’t doing it for me), I would like to propose a new meme, a new vision for what Seattle might consider as its future calling card.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Apr 10, 9:25 a.m. Inappropriate

For someone who has "studied the issue for 20 years", the author provides shockingly few (ok, how about zero) details on how Seattle can actually bring a city-wide fiber broadband network to life. I agree that the Mayor's statement was pretty mushy and that little progress has been made over the past decade. However, it is clear that what our leaders need is to be shown a feasible path forward, not mere cheerleading. Bill Schrier's article was constructive in this regard, and the Mayor's statement almost seemed to be a response to that input, by proposing to make it easier and less costly for service providers to work with the City. This article is just a diatribe.

kevin22

Posted Thu, Apr 10, 9:27 a.m. Inappropriate

Before the civic leaders of Seattle rush headlong into this project, they might want to ask their counterparts in Tacoma how the whole "Most Wired City in America" thing has worked out down here.

dbreneman

Posted Thu, Apr 10, 9:52 a.m. Inappropriate

Well, I bow to the superior knowledge of other commenters who seem to be implying that Seattle can't manage to do what's suggested. That said, something, SOMETHING, has to be done to free us from the tender clutches of Comcast! Comcast is the only cable broadband available in my area and while the service itself works mostly OK--not great, but OK--the company is a disaster for consumers with any kind of issue at all. No way to reach a person who can, or even wants, to help resolve any issue at all. Sky high prices that keep going up with little or no notice and certainly no improvements detectable to justify the increases. We need an alternative.

mspat

Posted Thu, Apr 10, 1:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Let alone "bring to life", as though a switch just needs to be thrown and we'll all be in paradise... How is a city supposed to build out a high-speed internet system, when they have a 100-year-old electrical infrastructure that they aren't upgrading? I may be naïve, but this doesn't sound inexpensive or easy in a city of this size. Or is local government just going to declare eminent domain over the existing network of cables, fiber optic, and telephone lines, and start collecting fees directly instead of taxing it?

stan

Posted Thu, Apr 10, 1:14 p.m. Inappropriate

I don't see anyone arguing we can't do this thing, or undertake broadband as a public utility. However, the route's not straightforward--the road may be rockier than Mr. Anderson takes the trouble to suggest.

Mr. Anderson's right about one point--Seattle's never been particularly adept at the kind of rah-rah self-promotion he appears to be so enthusiastic about. Will his type never tire of urging the town to doff its dour Scandinavian sobriety in facor of adopting bubbly, Californian optimism (the fruits of which we see expressed so well in LA itself these days!)?Anyway, doesn't Seattle's historic civic consciousness need to be at least acknowledged here? Has Mr. Anderson never heard of City Light?

Instead of assuming a sunny "California attitude about winning," and becoming boldly "(un)afraid to visualize greatness," from this corner it could be reasonably argued that what we really should be doing is, making the "connection" between obsessive growth and ecocidal climate change--truly, the subject that actually does "trump every other issue in town," since it "enables every other." Rather than worrying about "growth tomorrow," we need to keep our looming possible extinction in mind, in "connection" with everything we collectively do. This means coming to grips with somehow arriving at a sustainable, steady-state economics, with the chance, perhaps, of bringing the ecosystem back into the sort of equilibrium we now know to be crucial to our continuance.

Grumpy

Posted Thu, Apr 10, 1:15 p.m. Inappropriate

I don't see anyone arguing we can't do this thing, or undertake broadband as a public utility. However, the route's not straightforward--the road may be rockier than Mr. Anderson takes the trouble to suggest.

Mr. Anderson's right about one point--Seattle's never been particularly adept at the kind of rah-rah self-promotion he appears to be so enthusiastic about. Will his type never tire of urging the town to doff its dour Scandinavian sobriety in facor of adopting bubbly, Californian optimism (the fruits of which we see expressed so well in LA itself these days!)?Anyway, doesn't Seattle's historic civic consciousness need to be at least acknowledged here? Has Mr. Anderson never heard of City Light?

Instead of assuming a sunny "California attitude about winning," and becoming boldly "(un)afraid to visualize greatness," from this corner it could be reasonably argued that what we really should be doing is, making the "connection" between obsessive growth and ecocidal climate change--truly, the subject that actually does "trump every other issue in town," since it "enables every other." Rather than worrying about "growth tomorrow," we need to keep our looming possible extinction in mind, in "connection" with everything we collectively do. This means coming to grips with somehow arriving at a sustainable, steady-state economics, with the chance, perhaps, of bringing the ecosystem back into the sort of equilibrium we now know to be crucial to our continuance.

Grumpy

Posted Thu, Apr 10, 2:10 p.m. Inappropriate

The "connected City" would be parodied to death under that moniker. It does imply what is happening right now-- You have to have "connections" aka, money, influence, power, to get high speed broadband.

Those businesses actually don't have an issue with high bandwith broadband, and neither do the million dollar condos downtown. They have private arrangements that they can afford. UW has it's own Internet2 network, that is not for general public access. What is missing is residental and small business, particularly residental small business. CenturyLink, Comcast, Wave, and Frontier are taking care of THEM.

Everyone else is being cherry picked or not considered cost effective. This has not changed in more than 10 years. It's not going to change by proposing the same public/private partnership that has failed multiple times now, and was never the answer to begin with. It was politically expedient.

Those missing groups actually make up the majority of the citizens. 100MB would do just fine for them and anything they could need. And Gigabit backbones.

Being critical of what has not happened and how we got this way is justified, but does not provide the way to accomplish anything. It can be done. Seattle has the infrastructure to do it--Poles are being replaced on a schedule now. And Poles are not the only way to enable delivery.

Lack of political will was a primary factor in stopping this before, it does not have to remain that way. The mayor needs to lead, not wait for a consensus of others to approve of it. There are people who know how to do this cost effectively, without buckling to the big ISP's and content providers. Let them in, and let them do it.

Marksp

Posted Fri, Apr 11, 8:56 a.m. Inappropriate

City owned. The kiss of death to service.

Djinn

Posted Sat, Apr 12, 1:20 p.m. Inappropriate

I want an alternative to Comcast with its rotten customer service and irresponsible approach to security. The Heartbleed Bug has highlighted how irresponsible they are.

nwcitizen

Posted Sun, Apr 13, 9:05 a.m. Inappropriate

I understand that high speed broadband is advantageous for business and academia but in homes it appears to be primarily used for entertainment - why should that be a city priority? If the city does build a public broadband network that fosters competitions perhaps they can also open up their power lines and water mains for private competition and allow Comcast to enter pick up my trash if it wants to diversify! We could thus break up some overpriced public as well as private monopolies. I presently pay a lot more for trash pickup than I do for broadband.

WSDW

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