On January 14, President Barack Obama likened a city-run gigabit internet network to the discovery of fire by humankind. "It's unleashing a tornado of innovation," he said. "It's like being the first city to have fire."
First off, what is gigabit internet? It's a fiber-optic cable internet connection offering speeds of 1,000 megabits per second. That kind of connectivity, according to Google, allows for the downloading of a high-definition movie in about 30 seconds. Or streaming five HD movies at once without so much as a hiccup. Or transferring data over the web faster than is possible over a thumb drive.
A 2013 survey by a tech firm showed that the average connection speed in supposedly-future-focused Seattle hovers around 20 megabits per second—50 times slower than we'd get with gigabit.
Marti Hearst, a professor at UC Berkeley School of Information, has written that when we get to a gigabit world, "More interaction will be done with others remotely... We greatly reduce flying around for meetings because virtual conferencing feels real... Your golf lesson could be done with a coach remotely, in real time, while he or she watches your swing at the tee and has you make corrections and adjust your grip." Hearst added that the benefits extend to health care, including the possibility of remote assessment and treatment.
But, of course, Obama wasn't talking about Seattle when he compared the advent of municipal gigabit internet networks to the invention of fire earlier this month. Instead, he was heaping praise on the town of Chattanooga in Southern Tennessee (population 173,000), where he stopped the next day to encourage more cities to pursue gigabit internet, five days ahead of his State of the Union address. The speech was promoted by the White House with the hashtag #BetterBroadband.
Obama also swooped through Cedar Falls, Iowa (population 40,000), where he spoke at the Cedar Falls Utilities building. "You took a chance and you made something happen," he said."And you're supporting the jobs of the future through faster, cheaper internet. We want everybody to do that."
Chattanooga and Cedar Falls have one thing in common: city-owned, public-utility-run fiber-optic internet networks offering gigabit speeds, at prices competitive with the far slower internet connections currently on offer here from Comcast, CenturyLink, and Wave.
Seattle is a bustling, high-tech metropolis with a highly regarded public utility company. We're the fastest growing large city in the country, according to census data, and the city expects that over the next 10 years, 75 percent of the city's new residents will move here for jobs in the tech sector. So why, when it comes to the internet, are we so far behind cities like Cedar Falls and Chattanooga—or closer to home, for that matter, towns like Mount Vernon or Sandy, Oregon?
To make matters worse, Seattle's own surveys have shown that among the paltry existing options, the whiter and richer you are, the better your internet access is. The city has failed to close the so-called "digital divide." People are hungry for something better. "There was very significant interest"—85 percent of those asked wanted it—"in super high-speed [internet] services across ethnicities and incomes," city surveyors wrote last year.
Even the Seattle City Council is on board. Out of nine members, seven have told me they support the city investing in its own municipal broadband network. (The remaining two—Jean Godden and Tim Burgess—didn't respond before publication time.)
That leaves the mayor of Seattle.
Looming large over any moves toward municipal broadband is the aborted life of Gigabit Seattle—a public-private partnership between the administration of former mayor Mike McGinn and a company called Gigabit Squared. The plan was for the company to lease out the city's 550 miles of existing fiber-optic cable to homes and businesses. The plan collapsed last year, and the city sued the firm for $50,000 in unpaid bills.
It's clear that the highest-profile successful models that exist involve a purely city-run network administered by a utility company. Which makes sense—internet access is a modern-day necessity, not unlike power or water. But Mayor Ed Murray says he's exploring three options: loosening regulations on private industry, increasing public-private partnerships, or creating a full-blown city-run fiber-optic network. "The City is taking the steps necessary to encourage providers to deliver new gigabit internet service," Murray said in a January 15 statement. "In case providers do not step up to provide competitive, affordable, and equal broadband services across Seattle, the City is exploring the feasibility of a City-operated fiber-to-the-premises municipal broadband solution that could bring high-speed access to Seattle households."
As one of those steps he's taking, Murray has commissioned a new study, due in April, to consider the feasibility of a city-run retail model offering super-fast fiber internet connections (but not cable service, which inflated the cost estimates in past city studies). CTC Engineering, the firm carrying out the study, has been supportive of municipal broadband efforts.
Overall, the biggest hurdle to starting municipal broadband is the cost. In fact, the city has repeatedly studied what it would take to build these networks, and the price tag has been projected to be about $800 million. That's a ton of money, sure. But Obama wants to reopen the federal grant program that helped Chattanooga and Cedar Falls get their networks off the ground, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
The other huge obstacles to the creation of such a network are, of course, Comcast and CenturyLink, who've pushed for state laws across the country to prevent the expansion of networks like Chattanooga's. (When Murray ran for mayor, he received hundreds of dollars in campaign contributions from CenturyLink and a Comcast executive.)
In statements provided to The Stranger, both corporations sought to cast municipal broadband as a risky, doubtful proposition. Comcast referred me to a statement from the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, to which it belongs, casting "government run networks" as "diverting scarce resources from other pressing local needs." CenturyLink said municipal broadband networks often represent "millions of dollars in failed investments."
The two companies are slowly rolling out their own gigabit services in Seattle—CenturyLink currently offers it in West Seattle and Ballard—and their service requires a one-year commitment plus cable/phone bundle, at a cost of $80 per month.
But no one expects the two companies to close the digital divide.
Lining up opposite the big telecoms to push for municipal broadband in Seattle is a new coalition of artists, techies, and activists. The group includes influential community figures like Brown Paper Tickets' Sabrina Roach, singer Hollis Wong-Wear, Social Justice Fund's Karen Toering, and Citizens' Telecommunications and Technology Advisory Board member Ben Krokower. (They haven't decided on a name for their campaign yet.)
"Municipal broadband is a triple win for equity, affordability, and speed," said Roach. "The mayor has been doing a great job of focusing on equity, and this is a natural fit."
Former Seattle chief technology officer Bill Schrier added via e-mail: "What is the viaduct-replacement tunnel going to cost—$4 billion or more? For that price, we could run fiber to every home and business in Seattle FIVE TIMES OVER (at $800 million to do so). A fiber network would serve every one of 630,000 people, not just freight and those driving Highway 99. And a fiber network positions us for a future where technology is even more a part of our lives than ever."
It's about goddamn time to get moving on this. A 2005 city task force predicted that by 2015, the city would achieve high-speed "broadband for all," allowing, for example, a second-grader recovering from a medical operation to participate in class from home via a "two-way, full-motion video hook-up." But we've gotten nowhere nearer that reality in 10 years. Bill Covington, director of the Technology Law and Public Policy Clinic at UW, who sat on the task force, was blunt about what needs to happen now: "I want to see if the Murray administration will say, 'Let's put the money on the table, and take the heat.'"