CenturyLink would like Seattle to loosen its rules regarding installation of utility cabinets on public right of way.
  • Bidgee | Wikimedia commons
  • CenturyLink says that Seattle's tough rules regarding installation of utility cabinets on public right of way makes it impossible to deliver faster broadband.

In this week's paper I make the case for using Seattle City Light's coming "smart meter" rollout as an opportunity for building a fast, city-owned broadband system. Read the piece and tell me what you think. But as is often the case with print, there just weren't enough column inches available to tell the entire story—for example, CenturyLink's ongoing dispute with the city over the way it regulates the installation of utility cabinets like the one pictured above.

Generally installed in twos or threes in alleys or on planting strips, these four-foot high metal cabinets can be an eyesore and a nuisance. But CenturyLink says they are also necessary to provide the upgraded broadband services many neighborhoods say they want. Under current permitting rules, CenturyLink must receive written permission from the property owner abutting the proposed utility cabinet, plus at least 60 percent of the property owners within 100 feet of the proposed site. Due to its inability to meet these city permitting requirements, CenturyLink says it has been forced to abandoned 60 projects over the past few years that would have provided high-speed broadband to an additional 21,000 Seattleites.

On the other hand, these utility cabinets can be an eyesore and a nuisance. Would you want CenturyLink to have the unilateral authority to install these cabinets on your planting strip? Probably not.

So what can be done? CenturyLink is free to bury these installations under the street, but says that's too expensive. They can also pay homeowners to install the cabinets on private land. That costs money too. Instead CenturyLink, along with some frustrated consumers, are asking the city council to create a trial project on Beacon Hill that would suspend the rule and replace it with a public notice and comment period (like we already have for land use developments ) on new utility cabinet installations in the area.

"It fixes the immediate issue by creating more competition in underserved neighborhoods," says Robert Kangas of Uptun.org, a neighborhood group dedicated toward advocating for faster broadband service and more competition throughout the city. Kangas lives in one of those underserved neighborhoods on Beacon Hill, where his broadband choices essentially consist of cable provider Wave (formerly Broadstripe) or nothing. Kangas says that sometimes he gets 16 Mbps service, but during peak periods, often much slower. "Some nights I can’t even adequately stream Netflix," complains Kangas. For this he says he pays a combined $195/month to Wave for voice, broadband, and cable TV.

Kangas says that CenturyLink had wanted to upgrade service in his area, but couldn't get the necessary 60 percent of property owners to agree. "Abstainers count as no votes," says Kangas, who explains that the biggest hurdle is simply getting homeowners to reply. That's why he and his organization support CenturyLink's request for a trial project that would loosen these rules.

And it's not just Beacon Hill where CenturyLink provides little competition to the monopoly cable franchise. "We get complaints out of Magnolia and Beacon Hill and the Rainier Valley," says council president Tim Burgess. "CenturyLink provides service in my neighborhood," says Burgess, a Queen Anne resident, "but it is inferior to what Comcast offers ... I wish I had more options."

As I write in this week's paper, one of those options could be a city-owned fiber-optic network that would not just provide competition for high-speed broadband, but for voice and cable TV as well. But that would take years to build. And it needn't be exclusive from adjusting the rules to allow CenturyLink to upgrade its network faster.

"We see this as an iterative step," says Kangas.

Personally, I start from a place of being dubious of corporate demands for easier access to public resources, but I'm not familiar enough with either side of this question to take one position or another. That said, it certainly seems like a question the council should take up and address.