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.
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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.

Seattle, The Connected City

From the outside, Seattle seems to be saying that its future is in aerospace, software, wireless and biotechnology, with increasing pride in its production of entrepreneurs and startups. Look a little closer, though, and a large part of the scene is composed of branches of other large tech firms moved north to poach engineering talent from Microsoft and Amazon.

Seattle today is the largest city in a state famous for underfunding education, taking taxes from the lowest end of the ladder, feeding billions in tax cuts regularly to Boeing and never spending enough venture or angel money on its startups. No matter how you describe it, this is neither a great plan nor a reliable path to a robust future. Today, Seattle is acting like a city without a plan, located in a permanently tax-indentured state.

What if the city acquired the attributes of the coach and team it so admired this last year? Could Seattle ever become smart, bold, optimistic, and not afraid to visualize greatness for itself?

Imagine, for a moment, that the city did just that, and chose the creation of its own high-speed broadband system as the single most effective stepping-stone in achieving that goal.

Instead of falling behind everyone else, imagine that Seattle does for itself what Stockholm has done, and what Google has just done for Kansas City? What if Seattle became famous not just for rain, but for having the fastest, most affordable broadband in the U.S.? What would happen next, if Seattle became known as the most-connected city in America?

In the short term, it would benefit everyone in town. In the long term, it would lead to an environment of connected research, education and business on a world-class scale. It would be like winning the Superbowl, but much, much better.

Seattle, The Connected City.


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