While we're all celebrating our city's latest step toward a passable public transit network—the opening of the new light rail extension to the University of Washington—it's worth considering how much happier we all might be if we could access important online destinations through a publicly-run gigabit Internet network, instead of relying on Comcast and CenturyLink.
Yesterday morning, I enjoyed the train ride from the University of Washington to Capitol Hill. At the very same time, Mayor Ed Murray was defending his choice not to build such a network to a room full of officials at a regional broadband conference in downtown Seattle. He was the opening speaker.
"When I came in office," he said, "I was very excited about the possibility of municipal broadband—until these studies came back and indicated that it would be literally the largest tax increase in Seattle."
What Murray is really saying is that he doesn't consider broadband to be a priority. Last fall, the mayor himself spearheaded the push for the largest-ever property tax levy in the city's history: Move Seattle, with a price tag of $930 million. Voters approved it.
The study that Murray mentioned determined that Seattle could construct a high speed network using a combination of property taxes and user fees for $440 million. The mayor—who received big donations from Comcast and CenturyLink during his last campaign—simply lacks the political will to advocate for building such a network at this time.
The officials who followed Murray on to the stage for a panel on municipal broadband couldn't have been more different: They were mayors and city councillors from around the region who had the foresight and tenacity to create fiber municipal broadband networks in their cities.
"We have a three month waiting list," said Jeremy Pietzold, the city council head from Sandy, Oregon, a town of ten thousand people. "We just cannot get them connected fast enough." His city went into debt and took out revenue bonds to build their fiber Internet network. (That's another economic model that Murray rejected.) The city is already breaking even on the venture; the network's popularity is exceeding expectations.
Jill Boudreau, the mayor of Mount Vernon, said fiber Internet connections "should be treated as basic infrastructure," likening it to electricity. That city offers fiber broadband service to hospitals, schools, and companies seeking high speed connections.
"We will avoid any discussion about how many jobs have left Seattle to go up to Mount Vernon," quipped Christopher Mitchell, the moderator. (This is an actual thing that has happened, as reported by the New York Times. and others.)
So, what is Seattle doing instead of a launching citywide municipal broadband network?
At the conference, Seattle Chief Technology Officer Michael Mattmiller outlined a plan to offer wireless Internet service in certain "equity zones" across the city as a way to bridge the digital divide (the gap between those who can afford Internet and those who can't).
The city intends to find private providers to offer wi-fi broadband service in these "equity zones" where rates of home Internet adoption are low, though it's not clear if the Internet would be available to private homes or only through public buildings. Mattmiller said he hopes to present the plan—which originated with City Council President Bruce Harrell—to the city council this summer.
Isn't the entire city an equity zone, though? This is a very different vision from what Pietzold, Sandy's city council president, talked about at the conference: "Success for our community I think would be where people don't think of the Internet is even being there. They just—it's there. Just like we have electricity. We don't think if we have enough electricity to power the appliances we have in our house. We don't think about is there enough water coming down the pipe to whether or not we can flush the toilet or take a shower or take a drink. I think the success is just being invisible in a way because no one is complaining about not having the speed to be able to do something... It's just part of our daily lives. It's being able to not be concerned with a spinning wheel or bandwidth caps that we have. They can get out and enjoy the things around us and not be concerned about starting that download or anything about a job... because that fiber is in place."