Seattle's elected leaders will get another chance this month to move forward on creating a city-owned internet utility. Seattle City Council member Rob Johnson plans to introduce an amendment to the 2018 budget to hire a city staffer focused on municipal broadband and create a "shovel-ready" plan for building it.
"I continue to be a big believer that information is power," Johnson says, "and access to information should be available to everyone, regardless of where you live."
As the internet has become a necessity and companies like Comcast and Century Link have maintained an effective duopoly—often with high prices and poor service—Seattle has repeatedly studied the possibility of building a city-owned internet service. (A third company, Wave, also offers some service in Seattle.) Cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Cedar Falls, Iowa already have municipal broadband. Last year, a study commissioned by former mayor Ed Murray found that building municipal broadband in Seattle would cost less than previously thought. Still, Murray's administration rejected the idea because of cost concerns. Officials worried Comcast and Century Link could undercut city rates and that the city would have a hard time meeting the necessary "take rate" (the number of people who sign up for the service) to make the service financially viable.
That study “asked could Seattle do it and the answer was a resounding yes,” says Devin Glaser, policy and political director at Upgrade Seattle, which advocates for municipal broadband. “The question that’s still left is how do we do it.”
During budget negotiations in 2015, Council Member Kshama Sawant proposed a $5 million municipal broadband pilot project funded by a per-employee tax on business. That proposal failed in a council vote 6-2. Last year, Johnson and Sawant tried again. Then-council member/now mayor Tim Burgess, who chaired the budget committee at the time, did not include the proposal in his budget package and council members did not bring it up for a vote.
Johnson's amendment this year would allocate $170,000 to a “Business and Implementation Plan." That plan would "create a shovel-ready project," according to Johnson's proposal, laying out the costs of building the system, how much users would pay per month, discounts for low-income people, when and where the service would be rolled out, potential revenue sources to fund it, and a possible ballot measure to get that funding. The budget amendment would also fund one staffer in the Department of Information Technology or another city department to oversee this work. Having a city staffer working on municipal broadband (instead of just more outside studies) will create “institutional momentum," Johnson says.
“In my experience," Johnson says, "the pathway to success generally comes from institutional ownership."
Both candidates for Seattle City Council Position 8 say they support municipal broadband. Mayoral candidate Cary Moon has said she supports it; Jenny Durkan offered a vague answer when asked, promising to "tap experts" and "find ways to partner with the private sector." (Upgrade Seattle has endorsed Moon.)
When Murray was elected in 2013, Comcast helped fund political ads attacking his opponent, former mayor Mike McGinn. This year, Comcast has donated $25,000 to the Chamber of Commerce's PAC, which is supporting Durkan. (The Chamber PAC also supported Johnson when he was elected in 2015.)
The city council will meet to discuss and vote on budget amendments over the next three weeks. Johnson needs two other council members to cosponsor the measure to reach a full vote.