Broadband: Does the city of Seattle really need to step in?

Conduit for fiber in Pioneer Square

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is pushing to bring high-speed fiber-optic connections to businesses in the city, starting in Pioneer Square. But how far should the city go into an area where private companies compete?

The latest episode of the public affairs program City Inside/Out on the Seattle Channel does a nice job exploring the debate over the proper role for city government in developing the city’s broadband infrastructure. Guests on the program include representatives of Comcast and Qwest, along with Seattle’s chief technology officer, Bill Schrier.

City officials and business owners see it as an economic development issue, reasoning that many companies, particularly tech startups, won’t set up shop where they can’t get high-speed connections. But representatives of the telecom companies point to improvements that they’ve made in recent years as evidence that they’re serving the market, and that government doesn’t need to step in.

Program host C.R. Douglas also visits Tacoma, home of the municipal Click! network. Officials there say Click! probably would not have been built in the 1990s had there been the type of competition that exists in the industry today. However, the argument is that Click! also appears to have forced private companies to keep their rates down.

For more on the topic, see GeekWire’s  earlier story on the city’s Pioneer Square plans.

Thanks to Isaac Alexander for the tip.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steve-Murch/705204492 Steve Murch

    In my view, broadband is the exact kind of shared economic good that a city government should invest in to provide increasing (long-term) returns to the community. 

    By contrast, even more expensive investments like light rail, monorail service, and high speed rail, are very hard to make a spreadsheet foot with numbers in the black.

    Like the funding of a lighthouse for a harbor town, there are some things that can clearly provide greater returns to an entire community, but are just too hard to justify by one or two enterprises alone.  Seattle has already benefited greatly from digital commerce, but stands to gain a lot more if it can truly become a broadband leader.  These kinds of investments can, if planned properly, return far greater revenue to the city in the long-term.

    I welcome this kind of investment, and think it’s a very good use of my tax dollars.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steve-Murch/705204492 Steve Murch

    In my view, broadband is the exact kind of shared economic good that a city government should invest in to provide increasing (long-term) returns to the community. 

    By contrast, even more expensive investments like light rail, monorail service, and high speed rail, are very hard to make a spreadsheet foot with numbers in the black.

    Like the funding of a lighthouse for a harbor town, there are some things that can clearly provide greater returns to an entire community, but are just too hard to justify by one or two enterprises alone.  Seattle has already benefited greatly from digital commerce, but stands to gain a lot more if it can truly become a broadband leader.  These kinds of investments can, if planned properly, return far greater revenue to the city in the long-term.

    I welcome this kind of investment, and think it’s a very good use of my tax dollars.

  • Guest

    Yes. Improving bandwidth is integral to Seattle creating the next Zynga or MySpace Music. I think I speak for everyone when I say I am not satisfied with any of the private “options” available to Seattle businesses, especially in light of my Swedish (the country, not the hospital) friends literally laughing out loud in 1080p video from their 100 megabit connections that cost them but a few krona per month.

  • Anonymous

    I’m surprised CR can find room for debate on this issue.

    Broadband clearly is an economic development issue.  It is also central to education, to health care, to energy efficiency, to aging at home, and to countless other important priorities.

    The vaunted private sector has done a tragically poor job, both in our region and nationwide.  It’s widely recognized that the US ranks very poorly in international comparisons of broadband availability among developed nations.  In my area of Seattle, Verizon has not deployed FiOS (by far the best service), Qwest can deliver only 1.5mbps DSL, leaving us with Comcast as our only option.  That’s competition?

    There is a strong correlation between broadband availability and socioeconomic well being.  It’s partly cause, and partly effect.  The private sector only deploys when there is demand (and even then, only sometimes).  There are times when government can guarantee demand and thus cause the private sector to provision service.  That’s how the state’s K-12 institutions were provisioned:  the state promised to procure service at each of 297 school districts, so the telecomm companies got out the backhoes and provisioned service – enough for the schools, and also enough to be sold to consumers and businesses in the area.  But suppose you’re the mayor and you’re trying to revitalize Pioneer Square.  Are you going to sit around and wait for Qwest?  I have friends near Port Townsend who are still connected by dialup modem!

    Obviously, a variety of approaches is possible.  Each situation is different; there is no “one size fits all” solution.  However, two things are undeniable:

    1.  The nation’s telecomm companies have a story for how well they’re serving us, but evenhanded international comparisons tell a very different story.  Washington, the Puget Sound region, and Seattle are no different.

    2.  This issue is too important to our collective future to be left to the private sector acting in accordance with its own profit-driven priorities.

  • Forrest

    I’m ~1000′ from a Qwest CO, in Seattle, near I-5… and I can’t even get DSL from Qwest. At last check, for a few hundred bucks a month they can provide a T1, but no DSL. When Qwest doesn’t even provide reasonably priced broadband to a populated neighborhood in Seattle, yes, the city needs to step in.

    • Glenn Fleishman

      Right. I switched to Comcast because Qwest (at 10,000 line feet from a central office) got worse and worse from 3 Mbps down to less than 1 Mbps when I canceled. Comcast has been fine, but it’s price relative to other industrial nations and other parts of the US with similar cost factors is 2 to 3 times higher than it should be in a competitive environment.

      And Comcast reserves the right to cancel my service if I use more than 250 GB in any two months in a 12-month period. Given that they have a de facto monopoly on high-speed service, anything else they claim being incorrect in this market, that should be illegal. However, the federal government under Democratic and Republican presidents and congresses managed to reserve all power to demand fair and equitable market behavior by service providers to the FCC. Which was toothless under Clinton and Bush and remains nearly so under Obama.

  • Forrest

    I’m ~1000′ from a Qwest CO, in Seattle, near I-5… and I can’t even get DSL from Qwest. At last check, for a few hundred bucks a month they can provide a T1, but no DSL. When Qwest doesn’t even provide reasonably priced broadband to a populated neighborhood in Seattle, yes, the city needs to step in.

  • Glenn Fleishman

    How soon people forget what Tacoma was like in the 1990s. If Click! hadn’t been built, there would have been no telecom infrastructure worth discussing in the core of the city, and Frank Russell would have had to have left town at least a decade earlier (not justifying its current move for anything but the Seattle address, I think).

    Tacoma had developing world telecom infrastructure, with US West and TCI declining to spend money to improve it. That wouldn’t have changed through 2001, when the telecoms imploded after the dotcom crash, nor through the mid-2000s boom, when money was only spent in areas in which money was already being spent. VErizon’s FiOS build out in the Northeast is entirely focused on nearly redlined neighborhoods in suburbs and urban areas. (They’re smart enough to avoid that, but they are building more capacity where people already have it and pay for it, not in underserved areas.)