When the Great Seattle Fire ravaged the city in 1889, Seattle’s water supply was provided by an unorganized group of private, for-profit companies. This tragedy proved that uncoordinated private services were unable to meet the needs of the city as under-pressured water barely trickled out of hoses onto the badly burning buildings. In the words of then Mayor Robert Moran, “We ought not to be dependent in the matter of water supply...the life-blood of a city, on the caprice or rapacity of any corporation.”
What was said about water is true about broadband today. The coronavirus pandemic has shown that the internet is just as much a life-blood as water coming out of your faucet. Whether it’s work, accessing medical care, connecting to our loved ones, or educating ourselves and our kids, the pandemic has required everyone to move much of our lives online. And in the same way as the Great Fire decades before, it has taken a tragedy to truly show that a patchwork of private, for-profit companies has never fully met our collective needs.
Even before the pandemic, 21% of low-income households (making under $25,000) in Seattle go without internet of any kind. Furthermore, half of all Black residents in Seattle report barriers to internet access, with cost being one of the primary factors. At an average cost of nearly $700 a year, it is no wonder that reliable broadband is out of reach for many.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further compounded these inequities. Even among households with some limited internet access, subsidized plans provided by Comcast and CenturyLink fail to reliably provide sufficient bandwidth for much needed online education and medical care. When schools closed in May 2020, 25% of Seattle students did not have the broadband connection needed for online video learning.
Just as the water pressure dropped when it was needed most to put out the blaze, our current internet providers are leaving us dry when it comes to being connected when we need it most. And just as we did when we voted to create a public water utility after the Great Fire, we need to take the same action now for municipal broadband.
Without support from leadership, however, we will not succeed. Indeed, our current Mayor is not as enthused for a new public utility as Mayor Moran was. It is time for our next Mayor to champion this cause by making this a central part of their platform. Just as our public water supply is a pride of Seattle—one of the cleanest tap water supplies in the U.S.—we have the opportunity to lead and supply robust, affordable broadband to all.
If you are interested in furthering the cause and joining us in calling for municipal broadband in Seattle and King County, email us at email@example.com. Also consider asking your state legislators to support House Bill 1336, Washington State’s Public Broadband Act.
Carl Hiltbrunner is a renter in Downtown Seattle who believes the internet should be a utility. He is the co-chair of Upgrade King County, an all-volunteer community group. In his spare time, he enjoys photography, planespotting, and planting his P-Patch.