Seattle inches toward fiber broadband service

by Brier Dudley, Seattle Times

The city of Seattle's ambitious effort to develop a citywide fiber-optic broadband service is moving ahead, but slowly. That was the gist of an update presented Wednesday at the City Council's energy and technology committee.

After years of committees and task forces, the city hired a consultant last fall to analyze its options. They range from building and operating a municipal system, like Tacoma's, to subsidizing a privately built network with city assets such as right of way and existing fiber lines.

The city now favors a particular approach: It would build the heart of the system, extending fiber to neighborhoods, at which point a private company would connect homes and businesses and sell the broadband services.

A city-owned system may cost $300 million to $400 million and "that doesn't seem to be the wise route now, or ever in the future," committee Chairman Bruce Harrell said.

Councilman Richard McIver floated a bold idea. He suggested the city get a jump on building its own network by acquiring assets from Broadstripe, one of the two companies now providing cable and broadband services in Seattle. St. Louis-based Broadstripe is restructuring after filing for bankruptcy in January.

Combining Broadstripe's network with existing fiber could be an economical way for the city to build a network to homes.

But that might take quick action, and the city has been steadfast in its pursuit of another public-private partnership.

The consultant, Maryland-based Columbia Telecommunications, is now doing a follow-up study further analyzing the "fiber-to-the-neighborhood" option. Qwest and Comcast have used a similar approach.

That study should be done in June, which may give the city enough time to make up its mind on the project in time for its November budgeting.

Theoretically the project could begin as early as 2010, but remember that a broadband task force started this process in 2004 and first suggested heading this direction in 2005.

In the meantime, Seattle is looking into whether it can qualify for a share of federal stimulus money for broadband projects in rural and underserved communities.

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