Let me paint a bleak picture for you: it's 2020 in Seattle and people are having to drive to parking lots to slurp up WiFi from mobile hot spots. During a global pandemic, mind you, where the internet, for many, is their only connection to the outside world.
The state just launched 300 new "Drive-In WiFi Hotspots." There will be around 600 total statewide to deal with the fact that there's a dearth of internet access across the state. According to a Seattle Times story, sixty-eight percent of districts that responded to a state education survey reported "students [that] live in geographical areas without broadband or smartphone data access."
That's similar to the state of the so-called "digital divide" in Seattle where "10 percent of households have a major gap where they don’t have any broadband access," Councilmember Alex Pedersen, chair of the Transportation & Utilities committee, told me. He announced this week that he will be jumpstarting the process of bridging that divide with a resolution called "Internet for All."
I gasped when I first saw the press release. Was Pedersen, of all people, reigniting the fight for municipal broadband? Making the internet a publicly-held city-run utility?
The short answer is not really. But it's not outside the realm of possibility.
He's putting forward a resolution that asks Seattle’s Information Technology department to "craft an action plan, expand partnerships, and ensure the implementation of 'Internet for All,' so that all Seattle residents have affordable and reliable internet access," according to the release. That report, Pedersen said, is "more planning than study." The last comprehensive study on internet access in Seattle was done in 2018. The last one exploring municipal broadband was in 2015.
"We have all the information we need to start moving forward," Devin Glaser, a member of Upgrade Seattle, the group advocating for municipal broadband, told me. "The last study is five years old, and arguably, yes you could need new numbers but at the end of the day it’s a political question, not feasibility question."
According to Glaser, all past attempts at establishing municipal broadband have failed because the politicians driving it faltered.
Whether or not this resolution will be rehashing well-tread ground remains to be seen. Pedersen was light on the details in our conversation, saying that the resolution he will hear in his committee (when the governor's emergency proclamation is lifted, of course, so probably sometime in June) is "a way to formalize" getting universal broadband access "as a priority."
For Glaser, there's hope that this could materialize into something bigger, something like Seattle tried and failed to do most recently in 2015.
"It's got a lot of text in there," Glaser said about Pedersen's resolution, "but it says something about 'municipal broadband.' It's really exciting to see this kind of leadership from the city."
Part of the resolution necessitates gathering feedback from other cities across the country that have tried to get municipal broadband with what the report refers to as "limited success." Glaser believes that there are success stories all over the country. The most recent one, he pointed out, is in Fort Collins, Colorado where voters passed a ballot measure in 2017 to get municipal broadband despite nearly $1 million of Comcast money spent against the measure. That money funded this commercial that alleged spending money on fast internet would preclude the city from fixing traffic. The municipal broadband measure passed with 57 percent approval.
Pedersen was hesitant when answering whether he would consider exploring municipal broadband.
"I would be open to municipal broadband," Pedersen said. "I believe there was a cost analysis done that was very expensive and would take a really long time." He's referring to the 2015 study which put a potential price tag anywhere from $440 million to $662 million to build out a gigabit network. Glaser doesn't think it's that impossible. Seattle could simply do what Fort Collins is doing. Rather than spend $200 a month on Comcast, users pay $60 a month to the city and the city can bond that.
Whatever comes out of this, "I want the public sector to take the lead and to ensure that there’s universal access," Pedersen said. "The city council struggles with trying to maximize public benefit in exchange for things that the city government is making available. Part of the public benefit we should be getting in return is increasing access to things that empower people and that includes internet access."
Our Comcast and Centurylink duopoly won't love hearing that, but something needs to be done about the school kids driving to parking lots to get a bar of WiFi to do their remote schooling. It will take time, though. The report due out of this resolution won't be in front of the city council until mid-September. Maybe we'll have fast internet in time for the next pandemic.
Which reminds me. There's this one paragraph from a Stranger article back from 2014 when we almost got municipal broadband that I can't shake:
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.
That was a prediction that has very much come true. All of our lives are online now. But they're imperfectly online. Remote city council meetings have to pause and restart when various members cut out or lag, I've personally been resorting to using my phone's data hotspot to take 9 a.m. Zoom meetings because my roommates are also in 9 a.m. Zoom meetings and our bandwidth sucks ass, and Netflix had to reduce its streaming quality to avoid straining the United Kingdom's broadband. There are more examples, but you get the idea.
"What we’re realizing now," Glaser said, "is that even if we have decent enough connections we don’t have enough."
There will be more details about Pedersen's resolution when it's discussed in Pedersen's committee. That will happen whenever the council is allowed to convene on issues that aren't "necessary or routine" or "in response to COVID-19 and the current public health crisis."