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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