Seattle was left with no fiber Internet late last year after the city’s private partner, Gigabit Squared, failed to raise adequate funding for a much-anticipated high-speed network and instead left an unpaid bill of $52,250.
So what now?
New Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, who took office on Jan. 1, has plans to re-assess the entire idea of bringing ultra high-speed Internet service to homes and businesses here by taking advantage of unused capacity in the city’s 500 miles of fiber-optic cabling.
In an interview with GeekWire this week, Murray made clear that this is a high priority for the city and that his team meets once per week to discuss the issue.
“We need it,” he said of faster Internet. “We’re not as connected and not as fast as we should be, given that this is one of the IT centers of the world.”
After the Gigabit Squared debacle, Murray said that he prefers a publicly-funded Internet utility — one that could mimic a model of how citizens access city light, for example. But before anything, he wants to take the time to understand who really needs something like this and what the actual challenges are.
His main worry for a publicly-funded Internet utility is the high cost — something that former Mayor Mike McGinn pegged at $600 or $700 million.
“My concern is that we can’t afford it,” Murray said.
The mayor said that Seattle lost an opportunity to get a public option in place years ago that would have penciled out today. For now, he’s open to both a publicly-funded service, as well as some combination of both public and private options.
“This is definitely something we need to do,” he said. “There’s an economic development component to this. There’s an education component to this. There’s a social justice component to this. The challenge is, how do we make it pay for itself?”
“While the City does not have the power to prevent Comcast’s $45 billion purchase of Time Warner, we can take steps to make sure competition is stronger in Seattle,” Murray wrote. “One step will be to evaluate our City’s relationship with Comcast.”
Seattle has a franchise agreement with Comcast that expires January 20, 2016. The city has already begun reviewing the relationship with Comcast and will soon reach out to the public for input.
“If we determine Comcast has not lived up to their obligations, the City of Seattle will not renew the franchise agreement,” Murray wrote.
McGinn, Seattle’s former mayor, created a bit of a firestorm during last year’s election after he accused Murray of being “Comcast’s candidate.” Those comments followed a report by the Washington Post suggesting that Comcast, along with other Internet providers, were backing Murray in hopes of putting a stop to Gigabit’s planned high-speed fiber network.
At the time, though, Murray denied those accusations and said he supported citywide high speed broadband — a stance that he’s upheld today.
Murray said he’s learned from the Gigabit mistake and will pay close attention to Internet providers willing to enter the Seattle market in the case that the city decides to again go the with a private option in some capacity.
“We actually have to have someone who has the financial ability to build out the network,” he said. “We have to have a tighter threshold when it comes to that. That’s a lesson I took a way from [Gigabit Squared]. We shouldn’t just be blindsided by the cool thing if the cool thing actually can’t happen.”