A recent city-commissioned study has cast doubts whether a publicly-owned, municipal fiber network will ever be built in Seattle, depicting it as too pricey without a major partnership or significant additional funding. In the face of this setback, advocates for such a network organized a public forum last week to discuss next steps.
The strategy session attracted over 60 attendees to Town Hall, and was organized by Upgrade Seattle, a grassroots advocacy group pushing Seattle officials to create a city-owned Internet provider. They argue such a network would take private interests out of the equation, increase access and opportunities for low-income community members, and follow the model of Seattle City Light. If implemented, Seattle will be the largest city in the country with municipal broadband.
“We are a high tech city,” said Inye Wokoma, a media producer and part of Upgrade Seattle’s leadership. “It’s time to work on real solutions that benefit all of us and a community-lit movement will make that happen. There are a lot of things the private sector can do to detour this process. It’s important to not let the marketing language derail what we want.”
A city-owned broadband network would broaden access to fast connections, but for the city to break even on its investment, the study argued that 43 percent of Seattleites would have to sign up for the service at $75 a month. This is a high bar, especially considering that Comcast, CenturyLink and other competing platforms can lower their pricing to drive the city-owned provider out of the market. No othermunicipal broadband utility in the country has reached enrollment rates at that level.
At the meeting, Seattle Chief Technology Officer Michael Mattmiller argued this goal could be unattainable. “It’s too risky to ask of our people in Seattle because if we don’t come to that number, it affects the taxpayers for at least 20 years for a service we’re not using.” He emphasized Mayor Murray’s strategy to pursue other options: increase access to city infrastructure, simplify the permitting process, and explore public and private partnerships while leveraging the existing fiber optic network to provide service.
Following Mattmiller’s presentation, Upgrade Seattle organizer Hollis Wong-Wear interviewed Christopher Mitchell, the Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
“The Internet is really at the core of social movements, particularly in our city of digital advancements. How can we be sure these advancements affect everybody?” Wong-Wear asked Mitchell. “What should we be aiming to attain to push the dial forward to develop tech equity a year from now?
“The focus should be on the people who are not connected, the people who are left behind,” Mitchell responded. “Low income people pay $10 a month for Comcast. But you can only connect one device per household. To make sure everybody has a basic connection at home, there’s a $5 million budget to bring one-gigabit, fiber-to-the-premises internet access to tens of thousands of single-family homes in Beacon Hill, Central District, and Queen Anne. With all the transportation planning right now, it’s a good time to identify a fiber conduit in the ground.”
Advocates concluded the event by urging attendees to make public broadband an issue in city council districts. “We can talk about what leaders should do, but we need to make them do things,” Mitchell said. “It’s about electing people who are forced to do things…Invest in your power as a citizen to reflect something of your core values.”