2014's #8 Most Read: CenturyLink's bold vow of real gigabit in uptight Seattle

In Seattle, there is a particularly big obstacle to this kind of improvement: the city's tendency toward regulate aggressively.
Crosscut archive image.
In Seattle, there is a particularly big obstacle to this kind of improvement: the city's tendency toward regulate aggressively.

Editor's Note: As the year ends, we are counting down Crosscut's most read stories of 2014. The following article, No. 8 most read, was originally published on Aug. 5. CenturyLink announced earlier this month that its gigabit service is now available to 22,000 households within Seattle, and more will be reached early next year. 

In a remarkable announcement today, CenturyLink, formerly known as “the telephone company”, says it will bring gigabit Internet service via a fiber-to-the-home network to Seattle.

Seattle has been left at the altar of fiber-to-the-home high-speed Internet twice before — first by Google and then by Gigabit Squared, which is now being sued by the City of Seattle over their breakup.

Is the third time the charm? Can Seattle Mayor Ed Murray deliver on the gigabit promise that his two predecessors, Mike McGinn and Greg Nickels, could not? Will Seattle actually see serious competition to the price-gouging tactics of the cable monopolies?

A press conference on Tuesday, scheduled 9:15 a.m. at Seattle City Hall, should tell us more.

First, a dose of reality.

CenturyLink does, indeed, plan to introduce a fiber-to-the-home network in Seattle. Meg Andrews of CenturyLink says “this product will be true fiber-to-the-premise/home, not fiber to a box in a neighborhood, then connecting to existing copper wires.”

But it doesn’t exist, yet.

Sue Anderson, Vice-President and General Manager for CenturyLink’s Greater Puget Sound Region says the fiber network will build upon CenturyLink’s existing fiber, and will connect “tens of thousands” of homes in Seattle over the next year or so. Indeed, she says a number of apartment buildings and condo buildings in Seattle are already connected, with gigabit speeds available.

The new gigabit service will be available soon to single family homes in “the neighborhoods of Ballard, West Seattle, the Central District and Beacon Hill,” according to Anderson, although she won’t give a specific map or timeframe for the rollout, other than “now into 2015”.

The gigabit service will be “symmetrical”, which means the same billion-bits-per-second both to each home (download) and from each home (upload). This contrasts with current cable companies, which advertise 50 or 100 megabits per second (Mbps), but split that speed with 50 or 100 or more homes in a neighborhood.  Anderson urges Seattleites to sign up for notifications about the service at this website.

Priced at $79.99 a month with a 12-month commitment and a “bundle”, which Andrews says would include home phone and long-distance service, CenturyLink’s pricing will be comparable to gigabit internet offered by Google in Kansas City.

Gigabit will only be available in “select neighborhoods” of Seattle, not in other areas of the region which CenturyLink serves, such as Bellevue.

This announcement is definitely an expansion of CenturyLink’s network. Anderson says 40 Mbps and 100 Mbps service have been available to some homes and apartment buildings in Seattle for some time, and the gigabit fiber service is available to many businesses throughout the region. But these services run over an older network of fiber cables to a distribution box in the neighborhood and then over copper wires to individual homes. The new announcement is true fiber cable to individual homes and premises.

CenturyLink appears to have the wherewithal to deliver on their announcement. They own or co-own (with Seattle City Light) 100,000 utility poles in Seattle. They have copper telephone wires to virtually every one of 320,000 homes, businesses and apartments. They already offer the gigabit service in Omaha, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. Today’s announcement includes not just Seattle, but at least 9 other cities, as shown in the map.

Crosscut archive image.

So, could the City of Seattle screw this up again?

Seattle has certainly tried to over-regulate in the past. The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has a Directors’ Rule which requires any company putting a telecommunications cabinet in the right-of-way (parking strip) to get the explicit approval of 60 percent of homeowners who live within 100 feet of such cabinets. That’s a high bar in some neighborhoods, where many homes are rented, and homeowners might live in Tukwila or Timbuktu.

The rule, which is unique in the nation, if not the world, stymies the efforts of companies like CenturyLink (or Comcast, Verizon, AT&T) to build fiber-to-the-premise networks. SDOT is re-thinking this rule, and probably will propose legislation to the City Council to remove this impediment.

For right now, however, Anderson says CenturyLink will put the boxes on poles which it owns, which allows it to continue work on the fiber network.

The holy grail of competition, of course — and the cash cow for Internet providers — is Cable TV. Which highlights one possible reason CenturyLink is so eager to bring true fiber to Seattle. The company’s newest TV service, Prism TV, has been marketed heavily in Las Vegas and elsewhere. And it’s delivered not by cable or satellite — but by fiber.

This service offers true competition to Comcast and Wave, which presently split the Seattle cable television market along geographic lines.

Will CenturyLink offer Prism in Seattle?

Sue Anderson is coy about that. “We need to have the underlying high speed Internet available before deploying the TV product. Centurylink will continue to evaluate cities where Prism TV might launch next.”

In places where Prism TV is available, it costs between $80 and $90 per month.  If Prism TV launches in Seattle, what will it cost? Anderson refuses to speculate.

However Prism TV probably would require CenturyLink and the City to negotiate a cable television franchise such as those presently in place with Wave and Comcast.

Portland and Kansas City have eagerly embraced competition by negotiating favorable cable TV franchises with Google. But the City of Seattle still can stifle competition by overly regulating CenturyLink or others who would compete with existing cable companies through onerous conditions on a cable franchise.

Here again the city has a unique regulation — a Cable Customer Bill of Rights (CCBOR), the stiff customer service regulations of which might actually make it harder for CenturyLink to enter the cable market. (The company’s customer service is already highly regulated by the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission.)

Can CenturyLink deliver on its bold announcement? Will it expand its commitment beyond the four announced neighborhoods? Can Mayor Ed Murray deliver on his promises for a competitive internet and cable television environment?

Only time will answer these questions.

But, at this point, the answers seem to be 'Yes' — a positive sign for true gigabit networks and real competition in Seattle's cable market.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Bill Schrier

Bill Schrier

Bill Schrier retired in 2012 as the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for the City of Seattle. During his nine-year tenure, he directed information technology operations and policy, reporting directly to Mayors Greg Nickels and Mike McGinn. Bill is presently a senior policy advisor to the Chief Information Officer of the State of Washington. He lives in West Seattle with his wife Kathy and granddaughter Elizabeth.