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.

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  • icon
    Beefcake (profile), 1 Jul 2015 @ 4:24pm

    Tax-loathing? Seattle?

    We say yes to everything. The only reason there isn't a levy on the ballot for $600 million to provide this service is because someone doesn't want it on the ballot.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Bergman (profile), 1 Jul 2015 @ 5:06pm

      Re: Tax-loathing? Seattle?

      Agreed. It's hard to imagine anyone in Seattle saying no to a tax hike that promises them something in return.

      Whether it be a new stadium (to tear down and replace the one that used to have us in the Guiness Book of World Records) or replacing the light rail network we gave up to build a freeway 60-some years ago, you can bet the majority will vote yes.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 2 Jul 2015 @ 6:56am

      Re: Tax-loathing? Seattle?

      Yeah, not all tax hike bills are losers on the ballot.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Mason Wheeler (profile), 2 Jul 2015 @ 7:45am

      Re: Tax-loathing? Seattle?

      Yes, tax-loathing. Just look at the way Tim Eyman conned Seattle (and the entire rest of the state) into a bad deal that lost the average commuter more money than they were saving even before 9/11 drove gas prices through the roof, and they've been defending it at every chance since then, by promising lower taxes. (Or government fees, in this case, but it's essentially the same thing.)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Jul 2015 @ 5:37pm

    Increasing broadband also increases economic activity and educational opportunities which I never see reflected in these studies. Municipal seems the way to go for thousands of cities in the US. You bet telecos are going to fight it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Jul 2015 @ 8:51pm

    Seattle pours fifty-five grand into a black hole.

    Meanwhile, the homeless.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 2 Jul 2015 @ 2:59am

      Re:

      Jesus fucking shit. As brilliant as the once-popular "If we can put a man on the moon, we should be able to..." formulation.

      In a city where it has been decreed that burger-flippers be compensated at $30k/yr (NOT that such work is WORTH $30k/yr), that $55k you lament would accomplish little more than to remunerate a couple of six-figure white collar consultants with Public Admin degrees in the production of the first few pages of a white paper: "To the Benefit of All: Compensating the Temporarily Unhoused, Enabling Their Participation in the Economic Life of the City".

      Yeah! Power up those feels! #paythehomeless

      TechDirt comments going downhill? Nah, probably just an overactive curmudgeon gland...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      tqk (profile), 3 Jul 2015 @ 11:52am

      Re:

      Seattle pours fifty-five grand into a black hole.

      They just blew $180,000 on a study that took seven mo. Fifty-five grand is petty cash.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DeComposer (profile), 1 Jul 2015 @ 9:10pm

    Okay, the real reason a broadband levy will never appear on a ballot here in Seattle is because the city is managed with such breathtaking ineptitude that we have to vote levies for basic road repair—something that should be covered by the general fund.

    With such embarrassing mismanagement of even the most basic municipal services, the city can scarcely afford to let a special issue like broadband displace much-needed funding for transportation infrastructure maintenance.

    And let's be clear: Kshama Sawant is a joke. She's one of the most prominent protesters who objected to the mooring of a drilling rig at the Port of Seattle. She loudly proclaimed that it was our moral duty to break ourselves free from the bonds of oil, that evil corporate greed was driving global warming and we must not let anyone drill for oil!

    And, of course, she drove in her car, by herself to the protests....

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Mason Wheeler (profile), 2 Jul 2015 @ 7:51am

      Re:

      Oh, that's not the city's fault; the transportation budget has been crippled and shackled by Tim Eyman and all of the poor fools who fell for his con. If it weren't for I-695 and all of the aftermath in the years since it passed, there would be plenty of money available in the transportation budget, just as there was before he showed up on the scene and started throwing monkey wrenches into the machinery.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Some Guy, 3 Jul 2015 @ 7:26am

      Re: Kshama Sawant

      How is Kshama Sawant a joke? She's the only reliable voice the working and lower-middle class have on the Seattle City Council and she won a citywide majority in the last election.

      As for opposing oil-drilling, whether in sensitive Arctic areas (which the Seattle rig is destined for) or generally, an overwhelming majority of climate scientists believe anthropogenic climate change poses a dire threat to the planet's current species, including humans, and that burning fossil fuels is the prime culprit.

      You say she drove to the protest alone. Well, she has a rather busy schedule -- probably too busy to organize a carpool every time she goes somewhere. I'll bet she also gets Internet service from Comcast, seeing as how they have a monopoly on broadband in most of Seattle. Attacking people who are opposed to current realities but who make necessary concessions to them in the meantime is known as the tu quoque fallacy. You often seen it used, along with ipse dixit (like calling someone a joke), by people who can't come up with a convincing substantive argument.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        tqk (profile), 3 Jul 2015 @ 12:16pm

        Re: Re: Kshama Sawant

        Attacking people who are opposed to current realities but who make necessary concessions to them in the meantime is known as the tu quoque fallacy. You often see it used, along with ipse dixit (like calling someone a joke), by people who can't come up with a convincing substantive argument.

        For the record, anyone who starts quoting obscure terms in dead languages (whether they're laymen, medicos, mathematicians, or lawyers) are sure to lose my interest very soon afterward.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Yet Another Annonymous Coward (profile), 2 Jul 2015 @ 9:59am

    Don't Idolize Google Just Yet

    The article states:
    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.
    but I'm not seeing much better behavior from Google here in Kansas City.
    I would go so far as to say their customer service sucks. After signing up to get fiber service (which you have to wait until they get around to your part of the city), all inquiries about when the service might actually be installed are met with something along the lines of "We'll get there when we get there." The people I know who have Google fiber are very happy with it. The people who don't have it, can't seem to get it.
    I moved in to a neighborhood that had already been serviced, and was originally told I couldn't sign up since those were closed. After some discussions with a very pleasant and helpful rep, they made an exception and let me sign up. No indication of when I might get connected (even though fiber already exists in the neighborhood). Then, with much hoopla, Google announced that they were re-opening sign-ups in our area. Still no indication as to when the installation might actually happen. Emails are ignored. Phone calls result in "We can't do that today." even when I asked an opened ended "When can I expect..." type question.
    I am trying to remain positive about Google fiber, and even Google in general, but they are not the paragons of providing internet service that you keep implying they are.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      tqk (profile), 3 Jul 2015 @ 12:25pm

      Re: Don't Idolize Google Just Yet

      I am trying to remain positive about Google fiber, and even Google in general, but they are not the paragons of providing internet service that you keep implying they are.

      The implication I see is, even given all the troubles you see, they're lightyears ahead of the purported existing suppliers, and Google fibre is just a sideline for them, not their core business. They're just out to shame the existing market for its obvious failures, which is good whoever does it.

      [I'm not a G. fanboi, btw. I don't use their stuff much.]

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Yet Another Annonymous Coward, 6 Jul 2015 @ 8:32am

        Re: Re: Don't Idolize Google Just Yet

        I cannot say they are "lightyears ahead of the purported existing suppliers" at all. Their customer service seems just as inept (albeit pleasantly supplied) and their ability to predict when they will do anything just as incomplete/inaccurate. While my experience getting Time-Warner connected was anything but smooth, it is at least connected, with the same basic infrastructure going past my house at the same basic distance.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Whatever (profile), 2 Jul 2015 @ 11:07am

    Happy July

    Happy July everyone. Karl's mind numbing post pretty much can't pass without a comment - it's either this one of the other "blocking municipal networks" post further up the page.

    Karl, have you considered the mess most municipalities have made with the simple idea of water distribution? The average loss of water in these systems is 16%. They pay for the water systems in general mostly by being able to charge whatever they want within reason, as they are sole supplier.

    Municipal broadband sounds fantastic. The reality is much more like "let's spend a bunch of money we don't have, for a network that will need to be maintained, and will need to be upgraded, and will eventually be out of date (likely while the bonds are still getting paid off) and all let's not talk cost to the consumer, because we know how this goes: Unreasonably cheap to the point that it eradicates the market place, followed by huge increases when they finally figure out what it's costing them to do all of this. It's not cheap, it's pretty much on part with setting up a cable company or an electric grid. It's not chickenfeed, and even more expensive if you do fiber to the home.

    Letting government workers on any level be responsible for your connection to the internet is insanity. It will be expensive, over prices, have high maintenance costs, poor customer service, and generally will be out of date at some point.

    Just like a normal ISP, at probably twice the price in the end.

    So happy July to you, and I do hope like hell you get stuck with broadband run by the local people who can't manage to get the timing right on the local traffic lights.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 5 Jul 2015 @ 8:44pm

      Re: Happy July

      So you don't trust the government to run the Internet but you trust them to chase Internet pirates for you.

      Riiiiight...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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