M&R Equipment and other small businesses in a new Airport Way dead zone are now scrambling to find reasonably priced Internet service.
M&R Equipment and other small businesses just found themselves in a new Airport Way "dead zone," and are now scrambling to find reasonably priced Internet service. Courtesy Sabrina Roach

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At midnight on November 6, Sprint began disconnecting thousands of customers across from the country from its WiMax Internet network, which it's shutting down. That's left at least two Seattle small businesses in a virtual "Internet dead zone," because their area of Sodo isn't serviced by CenturyLink or Comcast, the city's two major Internet providers, or Wave Broadband.

"It sucks not having options," Mary Milliron, the owner of Pork Shop Screen Printing, said. "They're just like, 'Nope, we don't service your area.'"

For now, Milliron is using a Verizon 4G hotspot, but the limits on data usage and corresponding pricing are too onerous, she says. Her 15-year-old business, which employs seven people, had been paying $55 per month for Sprint's ClearWire service. She said it wasn't very fast, but it met their basic needs. Sprint, despite a last-minute injunction from an East Coast judge preventing it from shutting down the network itself, is disconnecting customers from the network anyway.

A local Sprint spokesperson refused to say how many Seattle customers are affected by the WiMax shutdown.

Two other local businesses in her building are affected as well, Milliron said, as is neighboring heavy machinery shop M&R Equipment. The owner of the machinery shop is 75-year-old John Roach, the father of Sabrina Roach, a savvy media activist who's helped spearhead the Upgrade Seattle campaign for a municipal high-speed broadband Internet utility.

"It's incredibly ironic," Sabrina Roach said, "that my family's in this position right now—that I'm working on this campaign, and that we have a vote in city council this week [on a municipal broadband pilot project on Beacon Hill] where we won't be able to serve my family's business, but we will be able to serve the people up the hill... one of the reasons I work on municipal broadband is because our family's company is located in an Internet dead zone in the Industrial Area."

According to Roach, her father negotiated with Comcast and thought that he'd set up a bundled service deal with Internet, FAX, and telephone service. But last Wednesday, two days before the Sprint shutoff, a Comcast service representative sent him an e-mail saying he wasn't in the service area. He asked what other options he had.

"Google ISP providers in your area," the Comcast representative responded, without elaboration.

Roach said her father is "freaking out" and is too busy to talk to me directly.

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"Municipal broadband would force competition," she added. "There's an Internet manhole cover right outside his front door. My guess is that CenturyLink doesn't want to spend the money to connect my dad that eight feet."

I asked City of Seattle Department of Information Technology head Michael Mattmiller—who opposes the municipal broadband pilot project—what he and the city are doing to assist small business owners like Milliron and John Roach. A spokesperson responded, "No comment at this time."

This post has been updated since its original publication.

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