Broadband for all: 8 next steps for Seattle

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The City of Seattle will not build a municipal fiber broadband network, which would create access to high-speed Internet for all of the city’s residents.   That’s the real message behind the city’s recently released $180,000 consultant study on the feasibility of such a network in the Emerald City.

Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant immediately condemned this conclusion. It’s a surprising position – a Socialist council member arguing for investment in ostensibly capitalistic “stuff” like fiber cable, electronics and so forth, rather than in programs which directly and immediately benefit people. That said, she lays out an articulate case for such a network’s public good.

“Municipal broadband can be a powerful lever against the digital divide that condemns people to the isolation and reduced economic opportunities experienced by many of our low-income, disabled, and people of color community members,” Sawant wrote in a blog post. But does Seattle truly value this goal?

According to the city’s study, Seattle would have to invest $460 million to $660 million in building this network. Seattle would need to get 43 percent of potential customers choosing the service at $75 a month in order to break even. Such a “take rate” is virtually impossible due to the serious competition already in place from Comcast, Wave, CenturyLink, Verizon, AT&T and other services. CenturyLink is already building Gigabit fiber broadband, and will likely serve 100,000 Seattle premises by the end of the year. Wave Broadband just obtained $130 million in funding to expand its fiber network. Comcast is expecting to offer “multi-gigabit broadband” to a million Washington customers this summer.

The city, starting from scratch, cannot hope to compete.

Very few other United States cities have built their own broadband networks, and only a tiny handful have been successful. The list of successes: perhaps Chattanooga and Cedar Falls, Iowa. The list of failures: Burlington (Vermont), Provo, Clarksville (Tennessee), UTOPIA (suburban Salt Lake City), Tacoma and more.

As they have in every city that has considered such a network, we can expect cable company incumbents to oppose a Seattle municipal network with lawsuits, which will be argued up to and including the Washington Supreme Court. We can also expect them to argue against government competition in the court of public opinion through ads and outreach.   And we can expect them to cut their prices to financially starve a City-owned network – good for ratepayers but a very bad for broadband network finances.

Must Seattle settle for a high-cost Internet duopoly of Comcast and CenturyLink, with Wave Broadband nibbling around the edges? What’s our high-tech, arguably world-class, Tech City to do?

First Seattle needs to clearly understand its goals in considering a municipal broadband network. Then we need to decide whether we must really invest a half-billion dollars and years of lawsuits to achieve those goals.

As Seattle’s Chief Technology Officer between 2003 and 2012 – a time in which municipal broadband options were examined closely in the city – I’ve had a lot of time to consider this issue. As such, here are eight recommendations for potential next steps:

1) Declare Internet access a basic human right for Seattle’s residents.   A worldwide movement already supports such action, arguing the Internet is essential to education, democracy, economic opportunity, disaster relief and healthcare. Today, many of the human rights in the United States Constitution or identified by the United Nation are intimately connected to Internet access. Such a declaration would help focus Seattle city government’s efforts toward improving Internet access.

2) Create a Seattle Technology Opportunity Fund. This latest broadband study identifies some potential funding sources, including a property tax.   Seattle residents have willingly taxed themselves to support bus service expansion, a new Seattle Public Library, rebuilding or building new fire stations and libraries in every neighborhood, a family and education levy, housing levies and more over the last two decades.   A tax increase for universal preschool, benefiting just those families with young children, passed in 2014, and Mayor Murray has proposed a transportation levy totalling almost one billion dollars.   Many funding sources are possible for the suggestions below, including a redirection of existing cable franchise fees, a new property tax levy or a sales tax increase. Such funding sources might be collectively called the “Seattle Technology Opportunity Fund.”

3) Subsidize Internet access for low-income residents and small business.   This is the most straightforward recommendation. Seattle already supports low-income rates for electricity, water and sewer and other City services.   Comcast, Wave and CenturyLink have special rates for low income subscribers.   The City could use its own funding and work with existing providers to develop what amounts to “zero cost” Internet access for low-income residents and certain small businesses. This approach engages the existing providers to support Seattle’s goals almost immediately, rather than engaging them in a years-long court battle over municipal broadband.

4) Provide free or low cost devices for students and low-income residents.   Of course Internet access is useless unless you have a computer and the know-how to use it. Seattle already has a world-class community technology program. With additional funding, the city could work with private sector computer recyclers, repair shops and community organizations to refurbish computers, smart phones, tablet computers and other devices, then distribute them to students and low-income residents.

5) Upgrade networks in Seattle’s public schools. Access to Internet-based education such as Khan Academy is proven to help students learn. A simple conversation with any teacher will quickly reveal a lack of high speed networking, computing devices and tech support in Seattle Public Schools. This lack is not due to lack of will, but simply lack of funding and staffing.   Rather than invest hundreds of millions in a city municipal network, investing a few tens of millions in technical support and devices for the Seattle public schools could achieve phenomenal results. This recommendation will complement the goals and projects currently underway with the Seattle Family and Education Levy, multiplying the effects of that investment.

6) Invest in computer labs, free wi-fi and maker-spaces. The City of Seattle already provides some computer labs in libraries and Parks Community Centers, and free wi-fi is available in community centers and all libraries.   A few maker-spaces with 3D printers and electronic tooling equipment are available. Every one of these programs could be expanded to more locations with the Technology Opportunity Fund.   More maker-spaces, with cheap hardware components such as Raspberry Pi, could allow students and other residents to develop their skills with hardware as well as software.   Wi-fi and computing devices could also be made available in homeless shelters.

7) Community academies and workforce training. Seattle is a world-class technology center, but its private companies badly need more staff with advanced computer skills. With the Seattle Technology Opportunity Fund, the city could establish a whole series of programs to fulfill these needs.   Working with the Seattle Colleges (formerly Seattle Community Colleges), Seattle Public Schools and locally-based Gates Foundation and org, the City could leverage its Families and Education levy plus the Seattle Technology Opportunity Fund to build a whole series of training opportunities. These might include coding education for Seattle residents and students and, indeed, an “hour of code” in every school and business in Seattle.   Promising students from these programs could be placed in internships with local technology services companies. Such individuals could move on to high-wage tech jobs, and since many of the students would be women and people of color, this program will also address the huge disparities in the workforce for those groups.

8) Licensing popular content. Many people complain that they are forced to buy cable TV packages with hundreds of channels they never use. Wil Saunders of the State of Washington’s Broadband Office suggests the City approach popular content providers such as Disney and ESPN to directly license access to their content. Seattle residents would access this content over their Internet connections in lieu of buying cable TV.   This places the City at odds with the cable companies, but for the most part they already see the end is near for traditional cable television service. In fact, most local TV channels are already available over the Internet with IPTV Seattle service, based in Olympia.

Innovation and competition are not strengths of city government. While governments can help develop many of the underlying technologies, they cannot build an iPhone, a Netflix, or a Surface tablet computer. On the other hand, government is good at forging partnerships, collaborating and bringing diverse public and private interest groups together to solve problems. Mayor Murray has demonstrated that with his Digital Equity Action Committee.

Rather than incite costly legal battles, the Seattle Technology Opportunity Fund capitalizes on such public-private collaboration to provide new opportunities for all of Seattle students and residents, at a fraction of the cost of an expensive municipal broadband network. Given the lack of current forward movement on this issue, why not give it a try?


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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.