The city's own series of tubes

Would municipal broadband service for all residents be better and cheaper than what the free market is providing now? Seattle City Hall wants to find out.
Crosscut archive image.

Utility poles owned by the City of Seattle. (Chuck Taylor)

Would municipal broadband service for all residents be better and cheaper than what the free market is providing now? Seattle City Hall wants to find out.

Prompted in part by broadband envy, Seattle is dusting off an idea that's been kicking around more than a decade - jumping into the Internet business.

The City Council recently authorized spending $185,000 to develop a request for proposals (RFP) aimed at attracting a partner to provide a fiber-to-the-premises network similar to what Verizon has done privately in some neighboring suburbs. The goal: affordable "true broadband connectivity for all Seattle residents by 2015," as envisioned three years ago by a city task force.

A fiber-optic broadband network with speeds of up to 100 mbps could reduce traffic congestion and air pollution by supporting telecommuting, increase citizen participation in government, let the city offer improved services, give people the means to communicate with friends and family in new ways, and otherwise enhance entertainment options, including two-way HDTV.

The idea is to offer residents and businesses the Holy Grail triple play - video, telephony, and Internet, the latter at speeds several times faster than Comcast's current residential rates - and charge them about 20 per cent less.

The city wants to ensure it's not left in the "dark ages," as one elected official put it, just as some Eastside suburbanites are slated to get a triple play – but not comparably reduced rates - via Verizon's FiOS fiber optic service network, an option unavailable to Qwest customers in Seattle. (Verizon spokesman Jon Davies said the company will launch triple-play service in Washington during the third quarter, but he could not say what it will charge; the price for high-end, triple-play service in California, with download speeds of 30 mbps and upload of 15 mbps, is $215 per month, he said.)

It remains an open question whether Seattle can induce anyone to step up and build a comparable network, at an estimated cost of $450 million.

Bruce Harrell, the rookie council member who heads the energy and technology committee that has taken testimony on the city's broadband initiative, has no illusions. "I'm not naïve enough to think that these companies such as a Verizon or Comcast and Earthlink are not looking at exactly the same thing" in areas they already serve – providing faster service. "You can't force a market onto companies that study markets for a living."

At a committee hearing in March, and again in a recent interview with Crosscut, Harrell expressed ambivalence about moving forward with the RFP but said that ultimately he was unwilling to abandon a strategy he'd inherited.

With the full council's approval, the broadband initiative ball now bounces back to the city's chief technology officer, Bill Schrier. His mission over the next several months will include amassing an inventory of city assets to entice a partner. The goodies include about 340 miles worth of already strung city-owned fiber, city-owned utility poles, City Light substations that could serve as nodes for a fiber-optic network, and expedited permitting.

The city also will need to address legal issues surrounding the extent to which it can offer up such assets, and what it would need in return. Also on the table is the possibility that Seattle City Light might build a separate, parallel broadband network to piggyback on an upgrade of the utility's energy management system.

Such a project would generate an additional set of legal issues in the wake of a painful court ruling that the utility illegally tacked charges onto ratepayer bills for services (streetlights) not directly related to electrical power consumed.

The council's instructions for developing an RFP also include the possibility of a hybrid network including Wi-Fi. On that score, Schrier is certain of a path to avoid – the one followed by Portland and San Francisco, both of which have struggled to introduce free, citywide Wi-Fi.

"This was so doggoned predictable," Schrier said recently, referring to the Wi-Fi fiascos. "When I was asked to comment on Philadelphia's original plan for a New York Times reporter years ago, I expressed skepticism. ... It's not that I'm clairvoyant, far from it. But there never was a business plan that could make any money at this 'free Wi-Fi' stuff. How otherwise-smart companies like Earthlink and MetroFi ... got sucked into this is beyond me."

Seattle first considered diving into the Internet business back in the mid-1990s, when Jane Noland and Martha Choe were on the City Council. Leaders balked at the cost and the pace of emerging technologies, opting to let the private sector have at it.

Fast forward a dozen years, though, and Seattle residents are complaining about relatively slow speeds and high costs. A city-commissioned feasibility study released a year ago this month found that more than 60 percent of Seattle households said they would buy telephone, cable TV, and/or data services from a city-sponsored fiber network if it offered lower prices.

CCG Consulting noted it had done similar research for municipalities and commercial concerns and found that Seattle results were "very positive and are higher than the results seen in many other surveys we have conducted. We guess that the high positive response is a result of a combination of some underlying dissatisfaction with the current providers and/or a very positive feeling about the city [government]."

Harrell said he has no interest in championing a broadband program financed solely by Seattle. He also is wary of a scenario in which the city might act as a "market stimulator" and inadvertently create a monopoly. For now, he is content to allow an RFP to emerge and let the chips falls where they may.

Schrier anticipates returning to the council in late summer or early fall with a set of "potential policy issues" related to the RFP, meaning the proposal itself might not be issued before September.

Sid Parakh, a technology analyst at McAdams Wright Regan in Seattle, agrees that it makes more sense for the city to look for a partner than to make a solo play. The RFP's details will determine the feasibility of any partnership, he said.

Meantime, what some might view as an inspiring, forwarding-looking quote from Mayor Greg Nickels stays splashed across at the top of the city's broadband Web site: "A state of the art technology infrastructure is vital to taking Seattle into the future. We are looking for a partner who has the vision and ability to join us in this exciting endeavor."

Asked for his take, Harrell said the mayor's line begs an underlying question: Who, if anyone, wants to dance with the city?


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors