Tacoma's Click: It's the envy of...Seattle?

by Lewis Kamb, Tacoma News Tribune

When was the last time Tacoma invited Seattle to steal from it?

That’s essentially what Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma did last week when he hosted Seattle’s next mayor, Mike McGinn, to talk telecommunications.

“He’s keenly interested in the Click Network and why we decided to move ahead to start it years ago,” Baarsma said. “And, why Seattle didn’t do the same thing.”

Seeking to take a page from Tacoma’s forethought a dozen years ago, McGinn is now studying what it will take to launch a publicly owned Internet network in the city he will lead starting next month.

And, unlike several recent battles over pride and possession between the two cities, this time Tacoma is only too happy to help its neighbor to the north.

“If our experiences can somehow assist them going forward, we’re glad to do it,” Baarsma said.

That’s a big if. Tacoma’s development of Click came under different times and circumstances. “We reminded him that there’s a big difference between Seattle today and what Tacoma was 12 years ago,” said Diane Lachel, Click’s government and community relations manager.

Lachel joined Baarsma, Tacoma Mayor-elect Marilyn Strickland, Tacoma Power Superintendent Ted Coates and others Monday to give McGinn and an aide a detailed presentation about the city-owned network. McGinn, a dark horse candidate who upset Seattle’s two-term incumbent Mayor Greg Nickels in the primary and then pulled off an unlikely win over a far-more-moneyed Joe Mallahan in the general election, made installation of a publicly owned high-speed Internet network a top issue in his campaign.

In 2005, a city task force drafted a plan recommending Seattle develop an advanced broadband network capable of delivering video, voice and data to homes and businesses within 10 years.

“But due to a lack of vision and political will, the current administration has left the plan to sit on the shelf gathering dust,” McGinn says on his campaign Web site.

McGinn, whose assistant said Wednesday that he was not available to comment for this story, has said that installing a publicly owned fiber-optic network in Seattle is essential for providing residents with cheaper alternatives to private broadband services. It also would boost the city’s economy, create jobs and extend services to all socio-economic segments of the city, McGinn has said. Some of the same benefits envisioned for Seattle have been realized in Tacoma, Lachel said.

Since its approval in 1997, Tacoma’s hybrid fiber coaxial network has, among other things, ushered in a cable television service, offered customers three high-speed retail Internet service providers, enhanced Tacoma Power’s electrical system and created a communications network among government institutions. In turn, the network and its programs have drastically reduced market rates for cable TV and Internet subscribers; saved local governments about $700,000 in annual expenses; and created several promising projects, such as “smart meters” that can gauge utility consumption electronically and “pay as you go” account options for electricity customers, she said.

Yet Lachel and others were quick to point out to McGinn that there are key market differences between Tacoma and Seattle. At the time of Click’s development, Tacoma’s underserved telecommunications market was considered a “Tier 3” market, with infrastructure on par with such far-flung towns as Omak and Okanogan, Lachel said.

“Based on the lack of capacity and willingness by the private providers at the time, Tacoma was forced to do this themselves,” Lachel said. By contrast, the much-larger Seattle market has 450 miles of fiber-optic cable. Another prime difference is costs. Tacoma had cash reserves to fund its initial project, while costs for Seattle, in the midst of a dour economy, could run up to half a billion dollars for the first project phase alone, Baarsma said McGinn told him.

“The financing is problematic,” said Baarsma, who noted that costs could be recovered in subscriptions and sales. “I think he really wants to pursue it,” Baarsma added. “The question is whether the city will get behind him and has the wherewithal and the will to do the project. We were fortunate, in that sense.”

article originally published at Tacoma News Tribune.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey