Seattle City Council Member Urges Grass Roots Broadband Revolution After Ten Years Of Failing To Fix Broken Broadband Duopoly
from the don't-build-it-and-they-won't-come dept
For most of the last decade Seattle, like many U.S. cities, has been painfully unhappy with its broadband options. If they’re “lucky,” Seattle residents have the choice of apathetic telco CenturyLink (formerly Qwest), or everybody’s favorite dysfunction monolith, Comcast. CenturyLink historically can barely be bothered to upgrade its aging DSL networks, resulting in most of its users paying an arm and a leg for 3 to 6 Mbps DSL (which was quite cutting edge in 2003). And while Comcast has done a relatively better job upgrading its networks, their customer service documentably qualifies for inclusion as a new circle of hell.
So Seattle has, since 2005 and before, pondered whether it should get into the broadband business itself. The city has conducted study after study on building a citywide fiber ring to feed municipal operations and residential and business service, yet these efforts consistently die under the weight of bureaucratic incompetence and Comcast and CenturyLink pressure. At one point, Seattle even paid a company by the name of Gigabit Squared $55,000 in exchange for absolutely nothing of note (Gigabit Squared magically evaporated after also taking money from Chicago in exchange for doing nothing).
So basically year after year slips by, and each new Seattle politician publicly laments the horrible state of broadband competition to score political points, but, like most cities, nothing gets fixed. That’s in large part courtesy of incumbent ISP lobbyists, who work tirelessly to make sure city politicians don’t disrupt the profitable and uncompetitive status quo. Last year, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray (the money he received from Comcast was a hot topic leading up to his election) proudly proclaimed that he would be the one to fix Seattle’s broadband woes:
“My office is actively engaged in finding a path forward. We certainly need some short term options to bring a functional internet to neighborhoods that have almost no connectivity, and we?re looking at ways to bring service to those neighborhoods as soon as possible. We are looking at a number of policy changes and their impacts that could foster greater competition right now, like testing small neighborhood pilot programs, building off existing fiber, or increasing WiFi access.”
Fast forward to last month, and Murray’s office has released a viability study that cost the city $180,000 and took seven months to complete. It basically states that the effort would cost $500 to $600 million and isn’t a viable project to take on alone. A memo by city budget director Ben Noble states the debt would “significantly constrain the debt capacity” for a number of critical city projects and hurt the city’s credit rating. The study examined a variety of options, from partnering with the city’s utility to using property taxes to fund a $45 per home gigabit service. The study concluded that none of these options were viable.
And if the math doesn’t work it doesn’t work, but remember the city has been throwing money (and time) for the last decade at exploring this theoretical network, and so far they’ve got little to show for it. And as city sports stadiums show (it should be noted CenturyLink field cost $430 million a decade ago), cities can build fairly amazing things when efforts take priority. The city did streamline regulations governing cabinet placement and city franchises, something Seattle CTO Michael Mattmiller insists is improving the city’s broadband without pursuing the municipal option:
“To see that reducing regulatory barriers brought not one but two providers to the market who could start building fiber to the home has been very encouraging,? Mattmiller said. ?I?ve seen the CenturyLink trucks around the city and am in talks with Wave about how they are approaching their build-out. It?s very encouraging that we are taking the right regulatory approach that still protects the city but allows providers to invest.”
Except Wave’s build out is condo-focused and modest, and CenturyLink is one of many ISPs that have responded to Google Fiber with what I affectionately call “fiber to the press release,” or the practice of offering gigabit fiber to a few high-end developments, then pretending it’s conducting a much broader rollout than it is. This usually fools the press and makes politicians look good, but the ruse often gets exposed when people actually try to sign up for service. CenturyLink’s CEO recently had to apologize to Seattle residents for overstating gigabit service availability.
And while streamlining franchise agreements and eliminating bureaucratic burdens helps (and is something Google Fiber has been preaching), companies still wind up cherry picking only the most profitable neighborhoods. They’re also not incentivized to upgrade uniformly or compete on price if there’s no competitive pressure to do so. Most broadband investors and execs hate the slow returns from network builds, so the focus for years has been on aggressively raising rates and cutting corners to ensure improved quarterly returns.
That’s why Seattle councilmember Kshama Sawant took to her blog recently urging Seattle residents to forge a grass roots movement to find some way to make Seattle municipal broadband happen:
“Seattle would be the largest city in the country to implement municipal broadband. We should expect Comcast and CenturyLink to go to every length to keep their unchallenged duopoly in Seattle. Countering them will require a mass citywide movement, much like the one we needed to win $15/hour last year by successfully overcoming the financial and political clout of fast food and retail giants…It is up to us working people to build a strong enough grassroots movement for municipal broadband to force elected officials to put Seattle?s need for universal, affordable high speed connectivity over Comcast and CenturyLink?s insatiable drive for profits.”
Which is great, but if Seattle as a whole isn’t willing to pay for service (and the tax-loathing public is easily swayed by ISP lobbyist and astroturfer vilification of such efforts), then the city’s going to remain locked in its Kafka-esque duopoly logjam in perpetuity. At least unless it can find a deep-pocketed and marginally altruistic private partner to eat much of the bill, which seems to be what Mayor Murray and friends are placing their hopes on. But if cities can build multi-billion dollar churches to the NFL gods, surely a city as jam-packed with creative minds as Seattle can find some way to fund a giant kick in the incumbent ISPs’ collective ass.