Devin Glaser, a member of Upgrade Seattle, argues that municipal broadband is not dead in this city.
Devin Glaser, a member of Upgrade Seattle, argues that municipal broadband is still possible in Seattle, despite what you may have heard about a recent city report on the idea. ASHARKYU/Shutterstock

Last week the City of Seattle released its latest study on building out municipal Internet here in Seattle. The in-depth report gave clear specifics on multiple pathways for how Seattle can create our own Internet utility.

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The report’s filled with lots of different options as to how to move forward, including laying out a path for Seattle to provide gigabit Internet to every home in the city for $45 a month. That’s 20 to 100 times the speed offered by the private market for considerably less money.

As a member of Upgrade Seattle, a group of grassroots activists pushing for a publicly owned and operated Internet utility here in the city, I was excited to read through the updated details on how we could invest in our community’s technological future. This report is the stepping-stone we’ve been waiting for.

Which is why we were surprised when the City’s Chief Technology Officer Michael Mattmiller told The Stranger: "I wish the report showed different things. I was really hopeful that costs had come down far enough and that the take rates would be reasonable enough that we saw a path with this model."

The report documented multiple ways of building out a network. One, using bond financing, was deemed too risky by the city and came with the higher price tag ($662 million). This was also the option that would have provided gigabit Internet to everyone in Seattle for $75 a month. In this scenario the City was concerned that Comcast or CenturyLink could lower their prices (about time!) in order to undercut the network.

The second option, which is getting very little press, would be to introduce a property tax to build out the network. This option has the benefit of a smaller overall price ($440 million), and allows the City to provide gigabit Internet for just $45 a month. CenturyLink currently charges about $130 to $150 a month for gigabit Internet. Let’s see them undercut $45.

This option is just one of many potential ways moving forward in which the city could build out a public network. We’re excited to work with the mayor and the city council to fine tune a plan. But we’re definitely far from deterred.

Beyond funding specifics, the report also laid out a clear explanation of why we need a municipally-owned broadband utility:

Many of the City of Seattle’s businesses and residents have access only to marginal communications infrastructure and have limited choice in service providers, which potentially results in stifled technological innovation and substandard service. These are symptoms of the core problem—a market structure with well-entrenched incumbent providers that have few incentives to offer enhanced data services or allow unfettered access to alternative over-the-top (OTT) application providers.

It also showcases the broad public support for government involvement in providing an Internet utility:

Respondents were asked what the main role of the City should be with regards to Internet infrastructure and services. As illustrated in Figure 75, nearly two-thirds of respondents indicated that the City should install a state-of-the-art communications network. Nearly one-half of respondents thought the City should install a network and offer services to the public. An additional 22 percent said that the City should build the communications network and lease it to competing companies to offer services to the public. Thirteen percent thought the City should encourage a private firm to build a communications network and only five percent thought the City should play no role.

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The report acknowledges the challenges, but doesn’t shy away from being optimistic about Seattle’s chances:

Entering the FTTP market can be challenging for any municipality, particularly those that provide services intended to compete with established providers. However, the City of Seattle is an established entity with a strong credit rating and the ability to provide long-term financing for projects. In this vein, it is capable of seeing and understanding the value of long-term investments and recognizing that the overall well being of the community is a forward-looking payoff in the short term while waiting for longer term benefits. Further, it is positioned to manage the infrastructure it creates.

The city also has a good track record providing services to its citizens through Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities. The community will potentially respond favorably to a new city offering, and is likely to trust the City to provide broadband services.

After reading the report, it’s not clear what Mattmiller wished to see. We at Upgrade Seattle read the same document and came away feeling all the more assured that Seattle is ready to invest in its future and build a publicly-owned network that makes other cities jealous.

Anyone interested in learning more can visit UpgradeSeattle.com, and we’re kicking off our campaign with a launch event at 7 p.m. this evening at Town Hall Seattle. It will feature a conversation between community broadband advocate Christopher Mitchell and Seattle’s Hollis Wong-Wear, followed by a district based strategy session.

Devin Glaser is a member of Upgrade Seattle.