Heres the cover of the 2005 report which said we were all going to have broadband access by next year.
  • City of Seattle
  • Here's the cover of the 2005 report that said we were all going to have high speed broadband access by next year.

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Did you hear about President Obama's big internet announcement today? Ars Technica boiled down the president's position this way: "Treat broadband—including mobile—as a utility." (Maybe if he'd come out strong on net neutrality before the election, young voters would have turned out in greater numbers, yathink?)

Net neutrality is the most basic step one can take toward treating broadband as a utility. But even if the FCC approves the strongest possible net neutrality rules, we'd still be stuck in Seattle with an internet provider "duopoly"—that's according to a then-confidential City of Seattle 2011 study that assessed the current broadband market. The study (PDF), prepared by an interdepartmental city team, makes a bold case for the city offering its own municipal broadband option.

In fact, the study cites another report, commissioned way back in 2005 by then-mayor Greg Nickels and the city council. That report asserted that in ten years, "all of Seattle will have affordable access to an interactive, open, broadband network." This declaration came under the heading, "2015: Broadband for All."

The Broadband and Telecommunications Task Force behind the report asked private companies to provide their plans for how they would contribute to reaching such a goal. They didn't, and the authors concluded that the existing market forces were unlikely to meet Seattle's internet needs. They envisioned that the city would intervene, so that by 2015, near-universal high speed internet access would allow a "second-grade student, during a long recuperation at home after surgery, [to] participate in classroom activities daily over a two-way, full-motion video hook-up."

But after hundreds of pages of existing reports, unmet goals, and a mostly unchanged local broadband landscape, the Murray administration is commissioning yet another study on municipal broadband, according to Chief Technology Officer Michael Mattmiller. "We'll be contracting with a consulting firm to revise the last broadband study we did," he told me last month, after a City Hall forum on municipal broadband. "The data at this point is from five years ago. The costs have decreased during that period."

The 2011 study estimated a cost of $700 to $900 million to create a fiber-to-premises municipal broadband utility. It also outlined a myriad of benefits worth nearly $1 billion annually to the city (more telecommuting, for example). The study warned, however, "that every opposition resource (political and otherwise) will be launched against The City" by the incumbent internet providers.

Back to Mattmiller, the city's current CTO: "We hope that Comcast and CenturyLink and Wave step up and will roll out fiber," he said. "[But] until we see that commitment or build-out from those providers, we need to understand what our ability is to provide that service if the market doesn't."

I asked Bill Covington, the Director of the Technology Law and Public Policy Clinic at the University of Washington and a member of that 2005 task force, why they expected the city to have made so much progress over the past decade. "We felt, by that time, we would either be able to develop a public private partnership, or that the city would have significant resources to wade into that water [of developing a municipal broadband option]," he told me. Plus, they weren't anticipating an economic crash in 2008. The task force was counting on two key components—the political will and the money—to come into being, he explained.

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Five years out from the crash, Seattle is the fastest growing large city in the country. In last week's election, the Murray administration demonstrated how those components—political will and moola—can be harnessed to fund city needs, leading winning ballot campaigns to approve new taxes for a universal preschool pilot program and mass transit. Could the same be done for municipal broadband—perhaps the establishment of a muni-broadband pilot program?

"I want to see if the Murray administration will say, 'Let's put the money on the table, and take the heat, and we will follow the Chattanooga or Tacoma Click! model," Covington says. Chattanooga's model, with the city's public utility taking the lead and overcoming lawsuits from the likes of Comcast, has been a rousing success.

Mayor Murray's new study is expected to take six months to complete. Which means it'll be done by the summer of 2015—just in time for Murray to start building municipal broadband in the year Nickels's Broadband and Telecommunications Task Force thought it might be finished.

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