Mayor Ed Murray has reportedly killed Gigabit Seattle, the fiber optic broadband partnership that promised to bring affordable high-speed Internet to the city's underserved neighborhoods. Some might take the news as a dubious undoing of one of former Mayor Mike McGinn's signature initiatives at the hands of his Comcast-funded successor. Others might tout Gigabit's death as yet another example of McGinn's incompetence.
But I don't subscribe to either perspective.
The service that Gigabit Squared promised sure was enticing—100 Mbps service for $45/month, 1000 Mbps service for $60/month. And the proposal to lease out 500 miles of city-owned dark fiber was an innovative approach toward using existing resources to jumpstart broadband competition with little or no additional taxpayer investment. But from day one, Gigabit Squared struggled to secure the financing necessary to build out its service. So I'm not sure that Murray had a choice. Like most businesses, Gigabit Seattle failed.
But that possibility was always built in to McGinn's broadband strategy, as illustrated by his comments at his announcement of a smaller project in the Pioneer Square neighborhood:
"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."
That is the message I hope City Hall takes away from the failed Gigabit experiment: We tried to partner with the private sector, and now it is time to look into doing it ourselves! Tacoma did it. Lot's of cities have done it. In Seattle City Light we have one the best public utilities in the nation, providing a model for how to deliver reliable service at an affordable price.
If both Comcast and CenturyLink remain uninterested in delivering the affordable gigabit broadband our city needs to compete in the global economy, we shouldn't shy away from providing a little public-sector competition. By all means, open our dark fiber up to private bidders. This time maybe a well financed company will wow us with their bid. But if they don't, I hope that Mayor Murray embraces McGinn's vision, and proposes building out a gigabit broadband service ourselves.