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Response to Seattle RFP: More of the Same

We have an answer to the question of what a city gets when it commits the bare minimum to improving broadband access: more of the same. We were skeptical of Seattle's approach of using city-owned conduit to spur serious improvements to broadband and, it turns out, correct.

Only one company bid on the project, Comcast, a provider in much of Seattle already -- and a much maligned one at that. So Pioneer Square will have better access to the Internet, but from the dominant provider of high speed access in the City.

Seattle just helped Comcast consolidate its monopoly just a bit further. This is a small step forward for Pioneer Square, and a larger step backward for the City as a whole. With FiOS available in the suburbs, offering much faster and more reliable connections for the same prices, Seattle has done very little to stem the flow of techies to the burbs.

The RFP set certain requirements for use of the City's conduit, as noted in the Seattle Times article but one has to wonder if Comcast might be able to negotiate that down - few are better at exercising monopoly power than the Nation's largest cable and Internet provider.

Comcast is slated to pay $78,000 in one-time fees to cover part of the cable's installation, plus $4,057 in annual leasing fees, according to city documents.

The City elected a Mayor who promised to improve broadband access, but it seems the City Council is standing in the way of actually doing anything that would bring residents and businesses a meaningful choice in providers.

Photo, used under creative commons license, courtesy of Jeff Hathaway

Greenville: The Texas Muni Cable Network

If you the take a look at our community broadband map, you'll see that Texas has only one citywide wired network owned by the public: Greenville. The story behind it is the same story we hear from just about every other community - but they actually spelled it out on their history page.

In 1999, Greenville, Texas' economic development leaders were unable to attract certain businesses and on the verge of losing existing companies due to a lack of high speed Internet.

In response, Mayor Sue Ann Harting asked SBC for a commitment to deploy DSL. That request was denied. The city's cable franchise, Time Warner, also declined to commit to cable modem Internet deployment.

Greenville found itself in a situation similar to one that many towns had faced years ago when railroads changed transportation. If the railroad was not routed through a town, that town just might die. What would happen to Greenville if the information superhighway did not come through the city?

Incumbent cable and telephone companies, their lobbyists, and associated "think tanks" like to claim that communities are somehow "duped" into building publicly owned networks. The truth is that just about every community wants to avoid the hassle of building a network but incumbents refuse to invest sufficiently to keep the community competitive for economic development and a high quality of life.

They build networks when backed into a corner, not because they want to. Fortunately, all that hassle almost always pays off with far more benefits than problems over the long term as communities transition from depending on some distant corporation to solving their own problems locally.

In fact, the results are often like that of Greenville:

Greenville citizens were not willing to take that chance. They took destiny into their own hands by amending the city charter to allow their revenue-only supported, municipally-owned electric system to build a hybrid fiber coaxial system to make high speed Internet available to everyone. Digital cable TV was offered as an option on that same system.

Once the citizens had committed to this venture, the city's incumbent telephone and cable franchises found ways of deploying that high speed Internet that they had only recently declared not feasible in Greenville.

In 2001, citizens began connecting to the city's state-of-the-art system that accessed all 10,000 of the homes and business in Greenville. Public acceptance has been very good, with more than 4,500 of those homes and businesses (as of June 2005) now choosing the new municipal services after less than four years in business. Financially, this non-tax supported venture was seeing black ink earlier than expected.

Public acceptance readily came from slightly lower cost to the consumer plus faster Internet speeds and more cable TV channels than the incumbents offered. (The existing cable company wasn't even offering ESPN 2 in 2000). Consumers also welcomed the chance to have these multiple services placed on one bill with "one-stop" local customer service to handle all of the municipal services - one inclusive bill for water, sewer, garbage, electric and cable TV and Internet as options.

After the community built its network, the incumbent providers finally upgraded their services and undoubtedly lowered their prices. The local Chamber of Commerce has this to say about the public investments:

Greenville is fortunate to have its own non-profit, locally operated municipal electric, digital cable television, high speed Internet, water, and wastewater utility systems. 

Unfortunately, Texas is one of the four states that have made it all but impossible for other communities to copy Greenville's success. And as long as AT&T can dump millions into the Legislature, that law will be hard to change.

Munis Tell Carriers: Forget You Guys

MHT, Mass High Tech -- the Voice of New England Innovation -- recently turned a spotlight on the difficulty of creating Ubiquitous high-speed broadband. Always refreshing to see others understanding the real impediments to expanding fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet in this country:

For Andrew Rollins, chief software architect for Cambridge mobile analytics software as a service company Localytics Inc., the answer is to go DIY — at least for municipalities.
“I think the most interesting thing that is happening today is that you are looking at municipalities that are saying (to carriers), ‘Forget you guys. We are going to do it ourselves,’” Rollins said.

That is happening because there is no real business incentive for broadband carriers like Verizon Communications Inc. or Comcast Corp. to make the investment in infrastructure required to reach everyone in the U.S. Add to that the deals they have struck to function as monopolies in many locations, and it adds up to companies that really want to hold on to the status quo, Rollins said. “Somehow you have to incentivize these guys to build out the infrastructure and I don’t think they are going to do it on their own. They’re already gouging the heck out of customers today so why bother making that infrastructure if you are already getting that money out of people.” 

They go to discuss the backwards approach from North Carolina:

“Down in North Carolina they have been actually going out of their way saying the community fiber-to-the-home and broadband networks are bad and can’t happen,” she said. “That’s not going to get us there. If you say to the communities that you can’t do it yourself, that’s not an environment in which we can achieve success, not just in 5 years but in 10 or 20 years.”

Well worth the read.

WiscNet Under Continued Attack, Contact Elected Officials

As we feared, the compromise may have been compromised by the uncompromising power of AT&T lobbyists. Once again, we learn that they struck at the last hour and may have put local schools and libraries on the chopping block.

If WiscNet goes and stimulus funds are returned, local institutions will have to double and triple their telecom budgets just to continue receive adequate service. This is intolerable. Until we hear otherwise, we encourage people to continue contacting their elected officials [pdf] in Wisconsin to express their opinion on the matter.

Some more details here and here.

Update: The Assembly will now be meeting at 1:00 rather than this morning. Rumors abound that they are still discussing how to "compromise" on AT&T's attack on the schools and libraries.

Unfortunately, this afternoon, I'll be leaving for a short camping trip (AT&T is not going to ruin my trip) and I have some canned posts queued up, so I won't be able to cover what happens in Wisconsin immediately. For news on the stimulus grant impact, follow WI_Broadband and for news about WiscNet, follow ijohnpederson and his live blog.

2nd Update: To understand how AT&T has so much power in Wisconsin, check out who "donates" the most money.

Positive Update from Wisconsin on WiscNet, Stimulus Awards

The word from Wisconsin is mostly good. A deal has been struck that will spare WiscNet, though it will be studied for two years and then could be killed. But a fair, open study will allow WiscNet to clearly demonstrate its value -- WiscNet thrives in the light while AT&T thrives at secretive, last minute measures to gut its competitors.

Additionally, the stimulus grants appear to be safe. The Legislature apparently will not require them to be returned long after the recipients had begun implementing them. But again, there is some bad news in that UW Extension will be restricted from receiving federal grants in the future to build the networks otherwise unavailable to schools and libraries. So that is disappointing. Returning those funds would have cost a few communities $27.7 million over just 5 years.

However, nothing is settled until the Legislature fully votes on it (today and Thursday) and the Governor signs the bill. AT&T lobbyists don't get paid to create fair compromises and surely aren't finished scheming. So make sure you have made your thoughts on this matter known to your elected officials. The Rootstrikes make it easy. Don't forget to tell the Governor too -- the line-item veto is a powerful tool.

Some more details have emerged regarding the damage to local budgets that would occur if the Leg requires the stimulus awards to be returned, in the Superior schools, for instance:

"We would pay about five times more for the internet access than we already pay through Wiscnet," said Nordgren [Associate Vice Chancellor of UW Superior].

The Superior School District said they would also lose money, because they have already invested $300,000 in anticipation of the project.

"We utilized the funding from this broadband grant in order to purchase and update our website that was archaic," said Janna Stevens, Superintendent at the Superior School District.


The Wisconsin League of Municipalities vociferously opposes language harming WiscNet [pdf]:

Finally, we strongly oppose JFC’s decisions to dismantle WisNet and to reject $37 million in federal dollars for promoting broadband service in rural Wisconsin. Many libraries and city halls around the state save taxpayers’ dollars by using WisNet as their Internet provider. This change benefits private Internet service providers at an additional cost to taxpayers. At a time when both the Administration and the Legislature are preaching government frugality, it doesn’t make sense to take away some of the very tools local governments use to reduce spending. We urge the Legislature to reverse these JFC amendments.

If there is one lesson we can take away from this fight, it is the need to build strong networks that can quickly respond to the tricks companies like AT&T can do in their power-center: state capitals and DC. This provision was obviously intended to benefit AT&T and a few other companies at the expense of all Wisconsin, particularly its schools and libraries. But WiscNet and defenders responded quickly and powerfully to the attack. And when they did respond, they did so with various arguments, including the cost to libraries and schools. If you can't tell a legislator how it impacts a budget somewhere, you probably aren't being heard.

Cartoonist Turns Attention to Telco Domination of Wisconsin Leg

A cartoonist turns his attention to AT&T and its allies in the Wisconsin Legislature, which is currently slated to kill a telecommunications network essential for schools, libraries, and local government. Why? So AT&T and its allies can provide the service instead, shifting local tax dollars from school teachers and libraries to AT&T.

As long as AT&T can dominate state legislatures with its campaign contributions and lobbyists, we will see scenes like this:


Please share.

Short History of Powellink Muni Fiber in Wyoming

I wrote this short case study of the Powell network in Wyoming for our Breaking the Broadband Monopoly report but it never got published on this site. As we noted a year ago, Powell bought its system back from investors last year.

The city of Powell started talking about a fiber network in 1996 but did not make progress for almost ten years. They developed a plan to build a FTTH network and lease it to an outside operator. The incumbents declined to partner with the City and later spent considerable effort to derail the City’s efforts. However, the City found a local cooperative, TriCounty Telephone (TCT), willing to offer triple-play services on the City’s network.

Financing the deal took more time than expected because the City was unwilling to commit public money directly or even as a backstop if the network fell behind on debt payments. While the City worked on the financing, cable incumbent Bresnan and telephone incumbent Qwest tried to convince the state legislature to abolish Powell’s authority in this arena. The legislature did create new obstacles for cities building such systems but Powell was grandfathered in.

In late 2007, the City agreed to an arrangement where TCT would exclusively lease the network and make up shortfalls in debt payments if required for a period of six years. After that period, the network would be open to other service providers as well and it would be the City’s responsibility to cover any shortfalls if needed. If the City chose not to appropriate in that situation, the investors could take the network. Estimates suggested a 33% take rate would allow the network to break even by the fifth year but most expected a higher take rate.

In early 2008, Powell completed the $6.5 million bond financing. As is more common in small builds, they immediately connected a line to the home rather than waiting for the subscriber to sign up. They trenched a fiber to the side of every house regardless of whether they were taking service, putting the fiber in a box on the side of the house. If the occupant signs up, a crew only has to install electronics rather than bringing a line down from the pole. This approach increases the capital cost slightly but can significantly decrease operating expenses as residents subscribe.


TCT began offering services in early 2009, creating a price war. Bresnan and Qwest significantly lowered their promotional prices in response to the network, ensuring that even residents who do not subscribe to the new city owned network will benefit from it. Bresnan has lowered its prices considerably, offering deals to Powell customers that are unavailable in nearby communities without competition. Incumbent providers often engage in what appears to be predatory pricing – a matter we discuss below in Obstacles to Community Ownership.

Powellink, built with the slogan “Our Fiber, Our Future,” offers much faster speeds than Qwest and Bresnan, both of whom are limited to asymmetrical connections that leave upload speeds at 1Mbps or less. TCT, whose network can offer 100Mbps symmetrical connections, does not fool around with promotional rates and long-term contracts.

Responding to critics of the City’s investment, Powell’s mayor noted that small communities like Powell always have to wait for companies to get around to them:

"It was 10 years ago when people at Qwest said they would be bringing us a fiber-to-the-home system," he said. "I found a letter from 1997 saying, 'It's coming soon.' Obviously, 'soon' for us is different for them."

The network has attracted jobs that require these high speeds – teaching English to students around the world using tele-presence applications. The company intends to hire 100 people, a major economic development win in a community of 5,000.

Powell’s City Administrator, Zane Logan, argues that building a modern network offers much more bang for the buck on the matter of economic development. Some communities work out tax breaks and other advantages for a company that announces it will create a certain number of jobs. In Powell, they instead focused on providing great infrastructure. They started by upgrading the public power system to ensure the highest reliability. Then they built an impressive network, offering speeds rarely available in even the densest urban areas of the U.S. and at prices below existing packages. Now, as Powell expands, developers will pay the majority of costs to expand the network in newly built neighborhoods in the same way they connect sewer systems.

Powellink Photos, courtesy Ernie Bray.

Does AT&T Really Own the Wisconsin Legislature? Battle Over WiscNet Continues

There are many places to find information about AT&T's war on WiscNet, a great credit to those who recognize the importance of WiscNet to schools, libraries, and local governments around the state. The best article on the subject may be from Wisconsin Tech News (WTN), with "UW faces return of $37M for broadband expansion in 11th hour bill." This post builds on that as a primer for those interested in the controversy.

Update: Read a Fact Check Memo [pdf] from the University of Wisconsin Extension Service with responses to false allegations from AT&T and its allies.


AT&T and its allies have long made false claims against WiscNet, setting the stage for their lobbyists to push this legislation to kill it. AT&T and some other incumbents want to provide the services WiscNet provides in order to boost their profits. WiscNet not only offers superior services, it offers services the private providers will not provide (including specialized education services). For instance, from the WTN article:

One of features that differentiates WiscNet from a private broadband provider is allowing for “bursting,” so that during isolated periods when researchers send huge data sets, they greatly exceed the average data cap. UW-Madison currently uses seven gigabits on average, and would have to procure 14 gigabits under the new legislation, even though most of the extra seven gigabits would seldom be in use, Meachen [UW CIO] said.

“We'd be paying for the fact that researchers have to send these huge data sets, and not have it take hours and hours to get to where it's going,” Meachen said. “You can't afford to pay for that extra 7 gigabits from the private sector because it's too costly. They increase your charges based on that.”

A private network would not have the necessary capacity for scientists on the UW-Madison campus, who are some of the leading researchers on next generation Internet. A previous recommendation to combine BadgerNet and WiscNet was deemed infeasible, as AT&T would own the network and would not be able to provide sufficient bandwidth at an affordable cost, Meachen said.


WiscNet is a buying cooperative, offering far lower prices to schools, libraries, and local governments than they would have to pay the private sector for similar services. More importantly, its costs increase much more slowly over time than similar connections from the private sector as community anchor institutions need faster and faster connections.

Killing WiscNet means more tax dollars going to AT&T rather than keeping cops on the streets, teachers in schools, and libraries open longer hours. These public institutions are all struggling to make ends meet and an end to WiscNet means radically increasing telecom budgets.

Professor Andy Lewis of the UW Extension Service, explains the cost differential:

While being very reliable BadgerNet is NOT affordable to many community institutions. For example, a 100Mbps service is $6,000 a month and a 1,000Mbps service is $49,500 a month. … The UW grant clearly shows a return on investment of 3.5 – 4.5 years. After that an institution will be able to get 1,000Mbps service for about $10,000 annually vs. $594,000 annually, which is the current BadgerNet rate.


BadgerNet is a physical network comprised of leased lines connecting libraries, schools, local governments, and other public institutions throughout Wisconsin. Badgernet is almost entirely owned by AT&T and its costs are heavily subsidized via state and federal programs. WiscNet provides services over those connections, including Internet access. WiscNet has been providing Internet service since 1991 whereas BadgerNet was built in the mid 90's. For more, this pdf offers background.

Tad Pinkerton, Emeritus Professor of Computer Sciences and "Father of WiscNet" explains WiscNet (with a clarifying comment from me in []):

My colleagues and I brought the Internet to the UW System and to other higher education institutions in Wisconsin, and to public schools and libraries throughout the state through a non-profit association called WiscNet. The budget proposal that would prohibit future work of this kind is a travesty. Research depends on using the very latest communications tools and capacity to be competitive, and these tools are not provided in Wisconsin by telecommunications companies. The UW-Madison must buy its access to them wholesale, and supplement them substantially with its own networking expertise. This expertise and capacity is then made available in the rest of the state through WiscNet [WiscNet contracts for this expertise, it is not provided for free by UW]. WiscNet also provides a collaborative environment in which like public institutions can pool their expertise to maintain services at a high level in this rapidly developing technology. Neither advanced networking nor such collaboration can be provided at retail by Wisconsin's private sector, despite their protestations to the contrary.


Lying and Lobbying

AT&T and its Republicans make the same bogus claims we see across the country in situations like this. They claim that despite being one of the largest corporations in America, they are the underdog and need special legislation to protect their interests. From the WTN article:

Republican lawmakers and the Wisconsin Telecommunications Association say the university should not be in the business of providing telecommunications services, and are in favor of shifting reliance back to BadgerNet, a state-run network that consists of private telephone companies, small and large, including AT&T, that band together to offer services to the education community in the state.

Bill Esbeck, executive director of the Wisconsin Telecommunications Association, says existing state law already prohibits the UW system from offering, reselling or providing telecommunications services that are available from private telecom carriers.

“WiscNet as an entity can continue to operate, we just think it should operate without a taxpayer subsidy,” Esbeck said. “We firmly believe some of the other telecom ventures at the UW are contrary to the existing state statute.”

Of course, if UW is really violating the statute, AT&T can take it to court. Why don't they? Massive incumbents sue competitors all the time for the flimsiest of reasons just to harass and tie them up in court. They don't go to court because WiscNet is not violating the statute and has welcomed a state audit to put an end to these allegations.

AT&T knows it best course is not via the courts, where it will lose but rather in the Legislature, where it vast lobbying power gives it the most advantage.

The charges that WiscNet is somehow competing unfairly with public tax dollars is absurd on its face. Though WiscNet does not receive the subsidy claimed by AT&T and its allies, even if it did, that subsidy is nothing compared to the subsidies provided to AT&T and its allies from state and federal programs to expand broadband access.



Again, from the WTN article:

Meachen says the telecom provision means high stakes for both the State of Wisconsin and for the university. The provision calls for the UW System to completely disassociate with WiscNet by July 2012.

“We created WiscNet, which is now a member owned and operated cooperative with an independent board,” he said. “So, we are forbidden to work with them, and they are our network provider, so we would have to start over from scratch and completely recreate our network. I can't even estimate the cost of that.”

If the UW System used BadgerNet to meet its current bandwidth requirements, it would pay an estimated $8 million a year, Meachen said. It currently costs the UW System $2 million a year for WiscNet, which is provisioned so that the costs to the customers do not increase with increasing bandwidth. Instead, the fee is based on the size and type of institution.

Using what he calls a conservative estimate, Meachen says the UW System would spend $27 million for BadgerNet by 2016, based on an annual growth rate of 35 percent.

“I, for one, would not want to stand before the taxpayers having just spent $27 million of their money when I knew I could have done the same thing for $2 million,” Meachen said.

The language is so broad, it would preclude participation in essential networks for scientific collaboration, like Internet2. AT&T and its allies claim this is a misinterpretation, but the language is pretty clear, as we noted previously.

Another article looks at the impact on Madison schools:

The Madison Metropolitan School District has used WiscNet as a provider for all of its network services, including Internet, email and online teaching tools, for 17 years. For the last 12 years, the district has been required to bid out to private organizations to see what service was cheaper, and it said WiscNet has always been a better value.

"If we were to change to an alternative Internet service provider right now, my estimate is the immediate cost to the district would be approximately 70 percent higher right now, and that doesn't count the services that WiscNet brings to the table for free," said Mark Evans, director of technology services at the Madison Metropolitan School District.

View the video accompanying that story:

Wisconsin Returns More Stimulus Money

Despite ranking 43'rd in broadband among 50 states on the National Broadband Map, the present Wisconsin state government seems determined to return all federal assistance in expanding broadband access.

This language also requires Wisconsin to return tens of millions of dollars in broadband stimulus awards to a public-private partnership. Returning these funds would be a tremendous blow to Packerland Broadband / CCI Systems, the private sector partner that has already invested millions into the project.

Yes, you read that correctly. AT&T and some other incumbents had their opportunity to work with the partners in this stimulus project and chose not to. Now they are trying to kill the project so they will remain the only remaining option to provide connections to these community anchors… charging far more for far less than the stimulus project would provide.

In order to qualify for the stimulus, those involved documented that the connections they need were not available from incumbents. It is not that incumbents cannot provide services like dark fiber, they just prefer not to because the profit margin is smaller than on the services they want to provide.

If AT&T and allies are successful, they will be proverbial dog in the manger: they will not provide the needed connections on reasonable terms and will use their lobbying clout in the capital to ensure no one else can either.

What to do

If AT&T is really so concerned about WiscNet violating the law, it should pursue the matter in court or in the normal legislative process rather than attaching this language in the 11th hour of the budget process. Just because AT&T has the clout to pass its false talking points off as truth should not make the Legislature agree to kill off an essential tool for schools, libraries, and local governments without a proper hearing.

If you are in Wisconsin, contact your elected officials and respectfully urge them to remove sections 23-26 of the UW System Budget Bill. Explain that WiscNet is essential for schools and libraries across the state and if they Legislature has concerned with how it operates, they should have proper hearings and an audit to establish some facts. Find your legislators using this tool.

Pass resolutions, as some have already started from relevant organizations. Resolutions show support and are a good organizing tool.

If you are not in Wisconsin, alert those who are and encourage them to act immediately. This could be decided as early as Tuesday

For more information or points you can make in your letter or conversation, visit Save WiscNet, this helpful post from ijohnperderson, or the ever-growing list of letters in support of WiscNet.

Pants on fire photo used under creative commons license courtesy of Flickr's Brad Gillette

Policy In-Depth: Debate over Muni Broadband Competing With Private Sector

On June 1, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation held an oxford-style debate over the proposition: "Governments should neither subsidize nor operate broadband networks to compete with commercial ones."  

Jim Baller and I spoke against the proposition while Rob Atkinson and Jeff Eisenach defended it during the 2 hour, 15 minute session.  I was unable to be in DC and thus participated by the magic of modern telecommunications.  

This is a long but valuable and unique discussion.  We left talking points behind, actually responded to the points raised by the other side, and presented both sides of this debate in a reasonable manner.  In short, this is exactly the kind of discussion we would elected officials to consider before legislating on the matter.  But it very rarely happens -- nothing even remotely close to it occured in North Carolina when Time Warner Cable pushed its bill through the Legislature to enact a de facto ban on muni networks in the state.

You can watch it here.


See video

Seattle Mayor Uses City Conduit to Connect Pioneer Square

In the campaign for Mayor, Seattle Mayor McGinn frequently proposed the city getting more involved in improving broadband access. Since becoming mayor, he has accomplished little in this area, perhaps due to a City Council that is not convinced it should get involved in broadband.

But the mayor held an event in Pioneer Square to announce a new initiative to start using City assets to expand broadband access:

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn today laid out a proposal to encourage broadband Internet in a four-block area in Pioneer Square, allowing telecom and cable companies to lease some of the conduit that the city is now placing under First Avenue South. McGinn said it is a small, incremental step in a larger plan to bring high-speed Internet to the parts of the city that need it, tapping into some 500 miles of “dark fiber” that’s not being utilized.

Pioneer Square, with a mix of commercial and residential, currently has very poor access to the Internet:

Jeff Strain, the founder of Undead Labs, a 20-person game developer in Pioneer Square, said that fiber-optic cable would dramatically improve his company’s ability to create cutting-edge games.

“What we are able to get in Pioneer Square is about half the speed of what you’d be able to get in your home,” said Strain. “So, it is not really suitable for the sort of media rich businesses that we are trying to build down here.”

The Mayor's site explains that Jeff Strain was considering moving his company to a location with better access.

We’ve heard from Pioneer Square businesses that internet speeds there are just not what a 21st century economy needs. Jeff Strain, who founded a game development company called Undead Labs, worries that he might have to move his company from Pioneer Square if the “barely adequate” internet service isn’t improved. He needs high-speed, high capacity internet access to upload his content.


Yet another reminder that simple DSL and even cable networks do not offer businesses the connections they need to take advantage of modern technology.

More background from the Request for Proposals:

The City of Seattle, through the Department of Information Technology (DoIT), is installing conduit between South Jackson Street and Cherry Street along 1st Ave South in Seattle’s Pioneer Square District. The installation is part of an ongoing street project led by the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and the Seattle City Light Department (SCL). The City is installing the conduit to provide conduit capacity requested by King County Metro for future fiber installation to serve signal cabinets. Only part of the standard four inch installed conduit will be needed for King County Metro purposes. The City has determined that after reserving space for current and future governmental uses there will remain excess capacity in the conduit which can be leased to private parties. As further detailed in RFP Section 5, the City will install three or four inner ducts in the conduit, leaving two inner ducts available for lease to an ISP(s).

The city appears ready to select one or two ISPs (which must have more than 3 years of experience) to move forward with this project. Mayor McGinn said the City would look into offering services itself if the private sector does not step up.

This 22 minute video below explains Seattle's approach, with Bill Schrier demonstrating the conduit and inner ducts being installed.

The City has 500 miles of fiber-optic cable, much of which could be leased as dark fiber -- a topic McGinn suggested will be addressed in the future.

Mayor McGinn has called on the City Council to pass an ordinance that will allow the City to lease space in city-owned conduits. We have some reservations about this timid approach -- it is far from clear that leasing conduit space to a few additional providers will ensure universal, affordable, reliable, and fast access to the Internet over the long term. That said, it will almost certainly be an improvement over the status quo. But what happens when Comcast buys whatever company builds these connections?

Seattle may want to consider a stronger role -- perhaps starting to build an open services network on which independent providers would compete for customers. It would require greater investment and risk than this approach, but it offers more long term rewards. If we had to guess, the City Council is the bottleneck and will only agree to this "small policy step," in the words of Mayor McGinn.

McGinn also noted that policy conversations in Beacon Hill, a neighborhood with very poor access to the Internet, almost always start with that topic. Comcast and Qwest are not meeting Seattle's needs. The question is whether the City Council will continue to prevent the community from solving its own problems with smarter investments.

Photo of Seattle used under creative commons license from flickr