Uncertain future for broadband improvements in Washington State

by Brier Dudley, Seattle Times

Get ready for another Bigfoot sighting in Washington.

Qwest, the region's telecommunications giant, appears to be waking after a long slumber that raised big questions about the future of broadband Internet service here.On Tuesday, the company's new chief executive, Ed Mueller, is expected to give investors more details about his plans to finally step up the company's investment in residential broadband services.

Mueller's on a relative tear. Two weeks ago, he said Qwest will boost speeds in 20 markets, up to 20 megabytes per second by year's end.

Qwest isn't saying exactly where this will happen, but it's already upgrading here. It recently put a new fiber-optic system in parts of Issaquah, Renton and Puyallup, boosting speeds there to 7 Mbps.

Does that mean Qwest is finally bringing truly fast home broadband to the region, a service that could put it ahead of Comcast's cable Internet service and on par with the Verizon fiber service available in parts of the area?

Spokeswoman Dana Dyksterhuis would say only that "we're going to have some exciting announcements coming up" in a few months.

I hope so, but we'll have to wait and see.

Qwest told Portland it would provide cutting-edge Internet television services there starting in 2008, but it abruptly shelved the project in December.

In Seattle, years of dithering by Qwest about its broadband plans led the city to beg other companies to step in and build a better network. That effort will resume in a few weeks when the City Council is briefed on the latest plan.

If Qwest is doing a big upgrade in Seattle, it hasn't told Bill Schrier, the city's chief technology officer.

"We've been anxiously awaiting to see what their plan was," he said.

"In terms of our project," he explained, "we still think that in Seattle there's a market failure in that Qwest is not competitive, so we're essentially a one-company town — Comcast — when it comes to cable and broadband services."

Frustration with Qwest's inaction spread to Olympia, where the state Senate on Feb. 19 unanimously approved a measure calling for better broadband statewide.

The bill is a little odd, though.

It avoids the tricky question of what, exactly, it means by "high-speed" Internet service. That puts zero pressure on Qwest, which already reaches 83 percent of its customers with "high-speed" DSL service. The bill just says "continued progress" is vital, so the state must back public-private broadband partnerships.

The main thrust of the bill is to create maps showing where broadband is available to help plot telecom investments. It also lets telecom companies decide which material would be exempt from the public-records law.

It's modeled on a Kentucky mapping project that's being replicated by broadband-deprived states across the country.

At first I thought Qwest was talking up its broadband plans in response to these public initiatives, but Dyksterhuis said the timing is coincidental.

I hate to set aside my cynicism, but it really does seem as though we're hearing this now because Mueller's putting his stamp on the company in an attempt to let shareholders know that he's investing, but not too much, in new services.

Let's hope he puts as much thought into the message he's sending customers.

article originally published at http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/businesstechnology/2004199035_brier25.html.

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