- Fiber optic cables. Bedazzling, aren't they?
Okay, so, officially, nothing's changed. Seattle still has a big digital divide—expensive, slow Internet service mostly from two huge corporations, Comcast and CenturyLink, with resulting disparities in Internet access among minorities and certain parts of the city.
Still, it's hard not to feel that this afternoon, deep in the bowels of City Hall, municipal broadband in Seattle gained some momentum. In a luncheon/presentation, a technology advocate named Christopher Mitchell, the Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative, unleashed a geyser of information supporting the case for Seattle taking the municipal broadband route. He's traveled the country helping cities get these networks off the ground.
Here's my Cliffnotes version: Municipal broadband networks (let's call it muni-net for short) are not easy to set up. For a city like Seattle, it would mean upfront costs of hundreds of millions of dollars, comparable to the cost of a new sports stadium, Mitchell says. Some cities have tried and failed. And it means going up against the likes of giants like Comcast and CenturyLink, who will fight at every turn against new competition with finely honed scare tactics. Municipal broadband requires a lot of community outreach and clear marketing.
The benefits, however, are potentially huge. Over time, a municipal broadband network would pressure the big telecoms, and almost certainly force them, to step up their speeds and lower their prices. Muni-net would do more to serve the areas that those companies currently do not. It would help enshrine Internet access as a vital basic service to which citizens are entitled.
Over time, the price for service would stay consistent instead of constantly going up. If successful—and these networks do have a track record of success, despite the telecom industry's claims, in places like Chattanooga and several smaller cities—muni-nets will more than compensate for the startup costs and even add revenue to the city's budget. "Chattanooga had Comcast running for the hills," Mitchell says.
So where do we start? Mitchell suggests the city start a municipal broadband pilot project, in order to "make mistakes that you can learn from before they hurt you."
But he also says citizens and businesses who are unhappy with the existing Internet choices need to demand it. It's hard for government officials to go up against big companies, on their own, with an unconventional policy that has a long-term, delayed payoff. If they're able to point to popular demand, that strengthens their hand.
"I'm very excited about the possibilities of this," said Ben Krokower, the President of the Citizens Telecommunications and Technology Advisory Board (CTTAB), which organized the meeting, on his way out. (That's an official citizen advisory group, Mayor Murray! You like to listen to those, right?)
Also in the room, absorbing a quite a bit of smack-talk about Comcast's shitty service from Mitchell and the audience, were Michael Mattmiller, the city's new Chief Technology Officer, Tony Perez from the city's Cable Office (which negotiates Comcast's franchise renewal with the city), and other CTTAB members.
Laury Kenton, a web developer and member of the Association of Women in Computing, came to the event on her own time. It's silly that Tacoma already offers a form of municipal broadband and Seattle doesn't, she complained. "My concern is we're just going to keep waiting and waiting and it's never going to happen."
Mitchell will present again tonight at 6:30 p.m. at the Bertha Knight Landes room on the ground floor at City Hall. If you can make it, go.