No, no, no, no... NO!
That's the position of Mayor Ed Murray on creating not only a citywide fiber municipal broadband network to compete with Comcast and CenturyLink, but also, now, building a $5 million municipal gigabit broadband pilot broadband project on Beacon Hill—essentially, a high-speed city-run network.
The city council is going to vote next month on whether to build one anyway. Council Member Kshama Sawant, with the support of Nick Licata and Bruce Harrell, has proposed a budget amendment to create such a project. Harrell has been advocating for years for more private broadband options on Beacon Hill, where Internet speeds are notoriously slow (comedian Brett Hamil made good fun of this fact). And earlier this year, a city-commissioned study of municipal broadband recommended that Seattle pursue a broadband pilot project.
"If the City pursues a pilot," the report, by consulting firm CTC, stated, "it should consider the project not only to demonstrate the technology and gather insight for a citywide deployment, but also to build excitement and send the message that the City is prepared and ready to bring next-generation connectivity to its residents and businesses. In other words, it might be used to help drive demand."
Incidentally, that paragraph aligns almost exactly with Sawant's movement-based approach to politics: Bureaucratic obstacles be damned, the way to make progressive changes is to be bold and build up public momentum around them.
But Ben Noble, Murray's budget director, and Department of Information Technology head Michael Mattmiller are opposed to a Beacon Hill municipal broadband pilot project. In a memo sent to the council yesterday, they justify their position by citing a few reservations about a pilot expressed by the CTC study, and talking up fears of a lawsuit:
The CTC report also specifically called out pilots as an exercise that generally does not provide sufficient insight into whether the City could run a cost-effective, self-sustaining citywide network. Further, a pilot would be subject to the same likelihood of being challenged in court, adding to the cost and time delays a pilot would take. For these reasons, and the high risk any ensuing citywide network poses to the City’s and the taxpayers’ finances, a pilot is not a wise allocation of existing resources at this time.
It's true that the study sounds a note of caution about the inability of a pilot project to predict success for a citywide network. That's rather obvious, when you think about it—a small area on Beacon Hill isn't representative of the entire city. But in the very next paragraph, the study's authors say, "The marketing power of a pilot project is significant—and may in itself justify the funds allocated for a pilot."
"We know sixty-five percent of residents want the city to build a municipal broadband service," said the pro-municipal broadband group Upgrade Seattle in a statement. That figure comes from the CTC study. The group praised Sawant, Harrell, and Licata for getting behind the pilot project. "We consider this a strategic initial investment in part of our city that needs immediate action. Beacon Hill can't wait."
The broadband budget amendment is expected to be up for a final vote in mid-November.