Shortly after taking office, Mayor Ed Murray finally pulled the plug on Gigabit Seattle, the financially challenged fiber- optic-broadband partnership that was once the centerpiece of his predecessor's internet strategy. But while Gigabit's failure was certainly a disappointment, it is also an opportunity: to give a giant collective municipal finger to those monopolistic fuckers at Comcast, CenturyLink, and Wave.
Now that the market has failed to address our broadband woes, Seattle is free to reconsider building a city-owned municipal system. And with Seattle City Light in the process of evaluating technologies for its coming "smart meter" rollout, the timing couldn't be more perfect.
Under its current six-year strategic plan, City Light is planning to replace about 410,000 manually read meters with new digital smart meters (City Light prefers the term "AMI," or "Advanced Metering Infrastructure"). These smart meters would communicate remotely with City Light, allowing for instant meter reading, more flexible billing, customer tracking of power usage, and faster and more efficient responsiveness to power outages. Installations are scheduled to begin by the end of 2015 at an estimated cost of $80.5 million through 2018.
But all this two-way communication requires a medium, either wired or wireless, and "all technology options remain on the table," says City Light spokesman Scott Thomsen. If City Light chooses a wired technology, the most obvious choice would be fiber-optic cable—a technology with the capacity to deliver high-speed data, voice, and TV in addition to the smart meter's minimal needs.
A city-owned fiber-optic system built atop City Light's AMI network would eventually reach every home and business in the city, offering speeds 10 to 20 times faster than current top offerings—plus voice and TV—at a much more affordable price. A 2007 study commissioned by the city estimated that this added competition could save Seattle consumers $2 billion over 20 years, providing a "gigantic boost to the local economy."
But is it feasible? Thomsen says that there could be "potential beyond the metering," but that City Light lacks the mandate to even ask the question. So is there the political will to instruct City Light to explore both the technical and economic potential?
"I think that's an appropriate question to ask," city council president Tim Burgess says of the feasibility of piggybacking onto City Light's smart meter installations. Burgess hasn't abandoned the public/private approach, despite Gigabit Seattle's failure, but he's not averse to going it alone. If we can't find a way to spur private investment in broadband competition, says Burgess, then "we should explore the municipal side."
Mayor Murray recently issued a statement declaring "a moral obligation to make affordable high-speed internet access available to all of those who need it in Seattle," adding, "I also believe we should explore a municipal broadband solution."
Can't get much clearer than that.
And the newly installed chair of the city council committee overseeing City Light is an enthusiastic supporter of municipal broadband. "If we are to begin to structure this city as a place where working people can access essential services and resources, [municipal broadband] has to be a part of it," says Council Member Kshama Sawant.
The ultra-high-speed internet service that Gigabit Seattle promised sure was enticing—100 Mbps service for $45 a month, 1,000 Mbps service for $60 a month—but the company failed to secure the private financing necessary to build out its service. By comparison, while Comcast offers 105 Mbps in select areas for $115 a month, most residential installations top out at 50 Mbps for $77 a month. And CenturyLink offers speeds no faster than 40 Mbps for $70 a month. If you're lucky. In many neighborhoods, CenturyLink's distance-sensitive DSL can crawl to a 1.5 Mbps pace.
"I'm a Comcast customer," says Burgess, who lives in a DSL-challenged area of Queen Anne, "and I wish I had more options."
But Seattle's worst-served broadband customers are generally some of its poorest, stuck in Central District and Beacon Hill neighborhoods served by cable operator Wave, where CenturyLink's lack of modern infrastructure offers little broadband competition. Robert Kangas of Uptun.org, a group advocating for faster broadband in underserved neighborhoods, says that while Wave has improved in recent years, it has yet to shrug off what he calls its "horrendous" reputation for speed, service, and reliability. Wave is also the only broadband provider of the three to impose monthly data limits—as little as 100 GB a month on its cheapest plan, about enough to stream three hours of HD video a day.
So what would a municipal broadband system cost? The 2007 study conservatively estimated a city-owned-and-run system would require $400 million in financing, but could break even at only 24 percent market penetration while offering a 20 percent discount over market prices. But might the cost of building out broadband be substantially reduced by leveraging our investment in City Light's smart meter rollout?
That's the question the council needs to ask.