Seattle broadband plan gets second look

by Brier Dudley, Seattle Times

It's time for a fresh look at Seattle's dream of providing superfast, fiber-optic broadband to every home in the city.

A year ago I said the broadband plan was a potential giveaway, since the city was offering public real estate to lure private investors. Having watched Mayor Greg Nickels tango with Paul Allen in South Lake Union, I still don't trust City Hall to negotiate a deal that's in the public's best interest.

But the broadband situation is getting critical. Maybe it's time for a leap of faith.

It's coming to a head this fall. In four to six weeks, Bill Schrier, the city's chief technology officer, plans to give Nickels a list of options for moving ahead with the broadband project, which began in 2004. Topping the list is a proposal to select a company or a consortium that would build and manage a citywide fiber-optic network. The city would contribute rights-of-way and access to current fiber lines.

Last year the city talked to 11 interested companies, ranging from Allen's investment company to Qwest and Verizon. The city next would request formal proposals. If that's the route Nickels and the City Council choose, the city may start with a pilot project. Building it all would take three to eight years.

Schrier's rough estimate: $200 million to run the fiber to every neighborhood and $300 million to connect every home and business. People opting to pay perhaps $40 or $50 a month would get a fiber link able to handle phone calls, Internet access and multiple streams of high-definition video.

It seems like a better investment than funding another sports palace or helping billionaires build offices and condos. If Nickels can find $500 million for infrastructure helping Allen's venture, the city can find or borrow enough to build and run a broadband network by itself.

Two things made me reconsider my position.

One is the fizzling debate in Congress over net neutrality, or whether broadband carriers can prioritize and charge different rates for traffic on their networks. It grew so tiresome and technical that nobody was paying much attention until an AT&T "content monitor" cut Pearl Jam's political commentary from a webcast last week, raising the specter of broadband monopolists selectively restricting content.

Net neutrality distracted from an equally critical issue — the lack of universal service requirements on broadband. Telcos convinced regulators that Internet service shouldn't be treated as a utility. So they're not obligated to serve everyone, as they are with phones.

If Seattle isn't led astray by its broadband partners, it could build an island of neutrality that would attract Internet companies and set a precedent for universal service.

The second reason to reconsider Seattle's plan is a chat I had with a guy on Beacon Hill whose broadband (and Internet phone service) was abruptly cut by Comcast last month.

He likes downloading software and movies but was warned two months earlier that he was using too much bandwidth. Comcast wouldn't say what the limit is and didn't warn him again before the cutoff. A spokesman also declined to specify the limit when I asked.

Comcast's user contract doesn't promise continuous service and it may cut service if you hit unspecified usage limits. It reserves the right to monitor and judge the acceptability of content moving over its network.

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