Comcast will start serving two dense and popular Seattle neighborhoods for the first time Aug. 18. The company’s internet and cable services will become available for residents of First Hill and Capitol Hill, a development that raises questions about broadband access and equity in a rapidly changing city.
Comcast says it is moving into these areas because the City of Seattle lifted franchise restrictions three years ago, which limited the neighborhoods cable providers could serve. Providers were required to serve all neighborhoods within a district but couldn’t encroach on other franchise areas. Seattle’s franchise boundaries were in place for decades.
The boundaries were also intended to restrict competition between companies, according to Bill Schrier, former chief technology officer for the City of Seattle. Setting up cable infrastructure is costly and the idea was to encourage companies to move into neighborhoods by ensuring they could recoup their investment.
Only the federal government can regulate internet service but the FCC empowers local governments to set their own cable franchise regulations. Cities across the country set their own rules and boundaries and the FCC requires cable companies to obtain franchise permission from local authorities. But those rules were written when cable and internet service relied on different infrastructure to operate.
“Today, of course, the distinction between those three services … is largely non-existent, which leads to all sorts of regulatory and legal issues,” Schrier said.
Seattle lifted its franchise boundaries three years ago because city officials wanted to give residents more options for providers.
“The concern was that lower-income neighborhoods also get this service from … all the franchisees,” Schrier said. “So at that time, geographic restrictions were lifted for the cable companies as well.”
Once those restrictions were lifted, Comcast began assessing Capitol Hill and First Hill and developing a strategy to expand into those neighborhoods.
“The primary driver really is continuing to look at locations that are outside of our footprint but near enough [to] our footprint that our ability to grow our network into those areas makes business sense,” said Sam Hassan, director of Xfinity communications at Comcast. “So as we looked at Capitol Hill and First Hill, those franchise boundaries didn’t cover the entire neighborhoods fully. We actually serviced parts of Capitol Hill and First Hill to begin with, so the ability to bring our network into the rest of the neighborhood really was a no-brainer for us.”
But internet activist Devin Glaser says the move reflects a history of telecom bias that favors affluent communities. Glaser is the executive director of Upgrade Seattle, an organization that advocates for internet to be publicly owned and regulated like a utility.
“It’s nice that they are expanding service now but it’s notable it’s happening only after the neighborhoods have gentrified considerably,” Glaser said.
Throughout Seattle’s history, First Hill, Capitol Hill, and surrounding neighborhoods were home to vibrant communities of color — though many were forced to live there because of racist real estate practices. But over the past decade, gentrification has reshaped these neighborhoods, driven by an influx of newcomers bidding up the cost of housing.
Glaser noted that Comcast still isn’t serving parts of Seattle’s International District, Central, District, Beacon Hill, and Ranier Valley, neighborhoods where many communities of color remain. Those neighborhoods are outside of Comcast’s historic franchise boundaries.
“It’s just those franchise boundaries that prevented us from serving,” Hassan said. “Our goal is to serve those communities now that those boundaries are removed and we’re excited to do so.”
Hassan didn’t elaborate on a specific timeline for moving into those neighborhoods but said, “definitely International District is on our radar for future servicing.”
As for the role gentrification plays in Comcast’s expansion, Schrier says it’s complicated. Some franchise restrictions, like those in the Central District, were set up to protect minority-owned cable businesses. But those companies were underfunded and service suffered as a result.
“The lack of profitability in the central area contributed significantly to the lack of customers,” Schrier said. He later added, “And yes, now with gentrification in those historically low-income neighborhoods, Comcast sees opportunity and is moving in to capitalize on it.”