Seattle City Light workers lay fiber optic conduit down 1st Ave by J&M Cafe
  • Goldy | The Stranger
  • Seattle City Light workers lay fiber optic conduit down 1st Ave by J&M Cafe

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Mayor Mike McGinn & Friends stopped by the corner of 1st Ave S. and S. Washington this morning for a little show and tell (video). The photo op: a Seattle City Light crew laying fiber optic conduit in a four-block stretch from S. Jackson to Cherry. The message: a new initiative from the mayor to lease miles of city-owned conduit—and eventually maybe even dark fiber—to private companies in an effort to jump-start many of our neighborhoods' stagnant broadband infrastructure.

Former Mayor Charles Royer and future-former Mayor Mike McGinn announce broadband initiative.
  • Goldy | The Stranger
  • Former Mayor Charles Royer and future-former Mayor Mike McGinn announce broadband initiative.

"Today is a small tangible step," the mayor said, referring as much to his announcement that he would ask the City Council for permission to lease out city-owned conduit as he was to the ditch and work crew in the background. If the Council agrees, the city will put out a request for proposal to telco and cable operators to hook up and serve this four block stretch of Pioneer Square. If no one bids, McGinn said the city would consider "whether we can just do it ourselves."

McGinn says the city would lease out the conduit at cost. City Light was already digging up the street to redo electrical lines, and the cost of the four blocks of conduit only added another $60,000 to the project, one-third of which was paid for by King County Metro to use for controlling traffic lights. And while the scope of this particular project seems small, it could pay off huge dividends for the struggling Pioneer Square neighborhood.

Charles Royers dog seemed unimpressed with the broadband initiative.
  • Goldy | The Stranger
  • Charles Royer's dog seemed underwhelmed by the broadband initiative.

Joining McGinn at the press conference was Jeff Strain, the founder and CEO of Undead Labs, a 20-person video game company based in Pioneer Square. Strain says his office's ethernet over copper currently tops out at 10 mbps, "half the speed of what you'd be able to get in your home." (Well, some homes.) But with a fiber optic connection, Undead Labs and its neighbors could enjoy speeds of between 100 mbps and 1 gbps, making the neighborhood much more attractive to other high tech startups.

As Strain explained, it's not just faster download speeds that are important to businesses like his, but symmetrically speedy uploads as well. With 100 mbps or faster symmetrical broadband, local businesses could locate all their servers at offsite data centers, saving money and electricity, while increasing both security and uptime. It's an infrastructure that, if extended throughout the city, could prove to be a huge economic engine for Seattle.

"We're falling behind other cities," McGinn laments, and he sees fully utilizing and expanding our investment in fiber as a necessary step towards catching up. To this end McGinn says various government entities have been working together to share the added cost of laying conduit whenever street work allows. Many government offices already enjoy the benefits of these investments. The focus now needs to be on extending these benefits to the rest of us.