Will Seattle get a broadband 'public option?'

by Jonathan Lawson, Reclaim the Media

Community activist Mike McGinn rode a wave of grassroots organizing energy to victory in Seattle's Mayoral race this month. One group of people who have reason to celebrate McGinn's election is locals lacking affordable options for speedy broadband service, including residents of Beacon Hill, and parts of the Central District and South Seattle. McGinn's vision for affordable city-wide broadband was not only a core concern for his campaign, but one of his clearest disagreements with challenger Joe Mallahan.

From early on, McGinn's campaign platform included a proposal to provide affordable, next generation broadband to neighborhoods across Seattle. He came to specifically endorse the concept of a city-owned fiber broadband network, filling gaps in neighborhoods where there are few or no options for affordable service. Smaller cities like Lafayette, Louisiana and Wilson, North Carolina have already made the decision that broadband ought to be treated like a public utility.

By contrast, Mallahan favored leaving local broadband deployment in the hands of telecom companies. When the issue came up during the campaign, the former T-Mobile executive said that public broadband is "not even close to being a priority." Mallahan pooh-poohed McGinn's citywide broadband plan as nothing but "hot spots for people who look like me to use as they sip coffee." (PubliCola's Josh Feit made a similar point early in the campaign season, writing that McGinn's broadband initiative "has a yuppie vibe to it." )

But the most important beneficiaries of a citywide fiber broadband project won't be middle-class latte-sippers looking for a little added convenience. A new city survey found that lower-income families and people of color are about a third less likely than higher-income and white families to use computers and broadband Internet connections at home. While public libraries and some other public facilities offer free computer use, that kind of access doesn't begin to compare with home access in terms of reaching news, education, job listings, government and healthcare resources, and economic opportunities.

Getting everyone connected to affordable, next-generation broadband will benefit the entire city. In terms of content, it's not just news and entertainment that's migrating online—it's public safety and health services, government accountability, and educational resources. Taken together, it's clear that access to these things should be closer to a right than an elite privilege—and a basic level of access should not be beyond anyone's reach.

A robust, modern tech infrastructure will make Seattle a more attractive place to live—or to do business. Right now, Seattle is losing out in that regard. While Seattle's suburbs are getting access to Verizon's FIOS services, Tacoma's Click! network has attracted more than a hundred businesses to set up shop in that city. By contrast, Seattle's incumbent phone and cable companies have totally failed to invest in Seattle's technology future, especially in underserved areas. New wireless projects, such as WiMax or 4G systems Clear (a Sprint/Clearwire joint project) and Comcast are planning to launch in Seattle, may provide new connectivity options for some neighborhoods currently unserved by DSL--but their customers will be stuck with those companies' pricing and customer service systems. And even those new wireless technologies won't achieve the speeds and reliability of fiber.

Seattle's Chief Information Officer Bill Schrier envisions a system capable of two-way, high-definition video--far beyond the capacity of today's cable, DSL or WiMax systems, and beyond what private providers like Qwest are interested in building. Public investment in tech infrastructure—a digital "public option"—is the only way forward for Seattle to regain our footing as a city distinguished by our tech savvy and our inclusive democracy. With strong civic leadership, it can begin even in the midst of the city's current economic troubles.

As Reclaim the Media noted last summer, the main obstacles to moving forward with next-generation fiber to underserved areas in Seattle are (1) money and (2) political will. The city budget remains in slash-and-burn territory this year; next year's budget would be the earliest that the new Mayor would be able to effectively push a significant new priority. This winter, however, Schrier's office will be able to apply for federal broadband stimulus funds to build out the skeleton of a citywide fiber network (possibly in collaboration with Seattle City Light), and to provide actual door-to-door "fiber to the premises" (FTTP) service to underserved neighborhoods in the Central District and Beacon Hill. McGinn's leadership will be key in making this project happen.

Following through on a public commitment to this vision will ultimately require more than the Mayor's sustained vision and federal funds (assuming those come through). It will require neighborhood activists, local businesses and community organizations to make sure the City Council understands the need for broadband investment. Bruce Harrell, who will remain Chair of the City Council's Budget, Energy and Technology Committee, will be an important participant in Council discussions about public technology investment.

Unfortunately, Harrell, a former staff attorney for US West/Qwest, has shown little interest in such investment, preferring—like Mallahan—to rely on vague promises of public benefits from private providers like Comcast. While he acknowledges the seriousness of the digital divide in Seattle, Harrell's idea to solve the problem is a public-private partnership called "Project Share," in which Comcast and Broadstripe customers would be asked to add a "small voluntary donation" to their monthly bills, presumably to help subsidize Comcast and Broadstripe service contracts for low-income customers.

Ending the digital divide in Seattle with affordable, next-generation fiber broadband, will require more expansive thinking than that. Fortunately, we have a Mayor-elect who seems to be ready to meet that challenge.

article originally published at Reclaim the Media.

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