Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has tried several ways to make good on a promise to bring broadband Internet coverage to all of Seattle. Monday (May 23), the mayor unveiled yet another approach — in his words a small tangible step — to comingle public policy and private enterprise and bring high-speed, industrial-strength broadband to the high-tech hub that is Seattle.
In a press conference at First Avenue South and South Washington Street, nearly drowned out by noise from street renovation work, the mayor and other proponents outlined a plan to bring high-tech-friendly Internet coverage to Pioneer Square: specifically, to four blocks of First Avenue South between Cherry and South Jackson streets.
The plan calls for installing a conduit partially filled with fiber optic cable to be used for civic communication, and to leave room in the conduit for private vendors to install their own cable. Those vendors could then provide ultra-high-speed Internet coverage — in the 100-megabit range — to businesses, restaurants, and residences along the street. The private Internet vendors would lease the conduit space at the city's cost, the mayor said.
The project was announced initially in February during McGinn's State of the City address.
According to Bill Schrier, city chief technology officer, the city hopes to award a contract by mid-July so construction can begin by summer’s end. Late Monday, the mayor’s office released a statement indicating that two to three Internet service providers are expected to submit proposals. If none do, then the city will take steps to directly make service available.
The project is expected to cost $60,000, with one-third already covered by King Country Metro as part of the Viaduct project. Workers have been installing fiber conduits already for use by Metro.
The broad picture, in the mayor’s view, is that this “small tangible step” will help create conditions that will enable high tech companies, including startups, to stay put and allow them to grow into world-class companies. Without a sufficient broadband backbone, precisely the opposite could happen in the mayor’s view.
The case was put succinctly by Jeff Strain, founder of Undead Labs, a 20-person video-game company that calls Pioneer Square home. For Undead, an up-and-coming game developer with an agreement to develop a zombie-survival game franchise for the Microsoft Xbox, powerful Internet service is vital. Contrary to home use, which generally requires only fast download capabilities, Strain's business requires equal, or symmetrical, downloading and uploading.
“Currently, we’re getting about half the speed of what you’re able to get at home,” he said. “It’s really not at all suitable for the kind of media-rich businesses we’re trying to build down here.
“Just to be clear, [better Internet access is] essential to us to be able to keep our company here.… As we grow, there will come a time when we literally would not be able to keep our business here if the city wasn’t able to give us some other option.”
Former Seattle Mayor Charles Royer, now on the board of the Alliance for Pioneer Square, a neighborhood group, noted that the old-city charm of the area has been a magnet for high-tech companies, but he said the buildings need extensive renovation to support would-be high-tech clients. “We’re in the National Historical District," Royer noted. "You can hardly change a sign without having to get permission and do it right.”
Why must the city take on the burden of carrying the broadband Internet mission? There’s no one else to do it, according to McGinn, adding, “Qwest and Comcast cable providers haven’t the financial resources nor the business direction to start expanding fiber-optic cable themselves, so we’re trying to provide an incentive to get more service provided."
Seattle residents in parts of the city are not happy with their service. “We would love, as you know, to get as many homes and businesses connected to fiber optic as we can," McGinn said. "This [project] is something tangible we can do right now. Go to Beacon Hill. I’ve been there and I can tell you, usually in the first two to three topics discussed is the quality of the service. It’s not good and it’s really challenging.”
To put his plan into effect, the mayor is asking the City Council to approve an ordinance allowing the city to lease space in the conduit to private providers.
A lesser-known aspect of the city’s broadband picture is the amount of high-speed broadband and fiber cable already imbedded in the city’s streets: roughly 500 miles already installed as part of the government network. McGinn explained that the city is in partnership with the county, state, the University of Washington, and other public entities when it comes to high-speed broadband. The city performs the work, and the partners equally share the costs.
To this point, the network has been open only to the partners; no one in the private sector has had access to it. The mayor added, “That’s the step we’re taking here: Making that conduit available to private-sector providers to provide it to private businesses and not just have it for private/institutional purposes."