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Community Fiber: An Update From Seattle

If Seattle moves forward on the Community Fiber Network it has been considering, it will be the largest such network in the nation. However, as we recently noted, progress has been slow. Reclaim the Media recently noted progress toward publicly owned fiber in Edmonds and asked why Seattle is stuck in the mud on the issue.

The City's "Seattle Jobs Plan" devotes a significant mention of a publicly owned fiber network as a smart investment:

Seattle’s economic prosperity, its ability to deploy effective public safety systems, and its determination to reduce gridlock and greenhouse gases are increasingly dependent on its communication systems. Currently, the communication systems serving Seattle businesses and residents are controlled by a few private companies, using older technology. With a lack of competition, there is little incentive to invest in more innovative technologies. Although some of Seattle’s larger institutions have migrated to their own fiber networks, these types of networks are unavailable to residents and Seattle’s small businesses. Multiple surveys indicate that 70% of Seattle households want to see more telecommunications competition. A recent study listed global cities with the fastest broadband connections; not a single U.S. city was listed in the top 20. A network of municipal fiber optic cables would instantly put Seattle at the top of the list of U.S. cities capable of supporting next-generation, data-intensive businesses, making it a potential hub for a number of fast-growing industries.

But the network requires a significant amount of planning:

The City has built and maintains a high speed, fiber optic broadband network connecting schools, government facilities, and community institutions. An interdepartmental team of staff in SCL, SPU and DoIT are currently developing a high level business plan that will guide this effort to expand broadband to businesses and homes. The business plan will be completed in early 2011. Once the plan is finalized, the City will explore funding options and next steps.

The report notes that Seattle applied for BTOP stimulus funding from NTIA, but the recent notice of awards suggests that Seattle will not receive any grants or loans.

Way back in March, City Councilmember Bruce Harrell published a lengthy post about Seattle's options. Harrell is a pivotal official on this issue and his post suggests he has given it a lot of thought. The post seems geared toward those pushing for a community fiber network. The overall message is that this is a hard decision… which is fine, but the Council seems more ready to wait out the clock than actually make a decision.

There are clearly reasons why no major city has deployed a municipally owned fiber system and why Clarksville, Tennessee; Lafayette, Louisiana; and Monticello, Minnesota are cited as the examples of cities that have deployed it. There is a reason why San Francisco, Portland and St. Paul have not launched a city-owned system.

Actually, Chattanooga is the Tennessee utility most often mentioned in terms of size with 160,000 or so households and businesses. Seattle has some 270,000 households and businesses, I believe, so it is definitely larger… but not as significantly as Harrell suggests. However, the point stands, major cities have not yet built a citywide fiber network and there are reasons for that. For one thing, larger cities have traditionally had enough private sector investment that the local government did not have to get involved as a matter of community survival.

But another reason is because larger cities have a higher sociological hurdle - whereas smaller communities typically have a stronger community identity and trust in the local government, larger metro areas tend not to. Without that trust, local governments have to work harder to educate the public why these networks are so crucial and why the private sector cannot build the necessary networks or be trusted to make the rules governing them.

I think Harrell is somewhat off in describing what the community needs from a next-generation broadband network:

In short, Seattle is a technology and business leader. To continue that leadership and remain a renowned hub of innovation, Seattle should have a network that provides residents with download speeds of 20 Megabits-per-second (Mbps) to 100 Mbps and upload speeds of 10 Mbps to 50 Mbps. The network infrastructure should be capable of offering symmetrical download and upload speeds of 100 Mbps by 2020.

If Seattle does not have symmetrical 100Mbps in 2019, it will certainly not have been a tech leader for several years. A number of US communities already have 100Mbps to everyone -- Lafayette, Louisiana; Monticello, Minnesota; Wilson, North Carolina… the list goes on.

Heck, Chattanooga already has 1Gbps service at probably a fraction of the cost symmetrical 50Mbps runs in Seattle. But would Seattle businesses want to move to Chattanooga? I dunno… do these folks value incredible outdoors activities from cycling to mountain climbing? On my visit to Chattanooga, I actually got the idea that a lot of interesting folks have moved there from Colorado and the Pacific Northwest.

Available speeds are hardly the single broadband metric businesses care about. They are also deeply concerned about cost and reliability. Without public sector investment to create a network accountable to the community (which also creates competition), there is little reason to think Seattle's broadband options will change significantly.

Between the FiOS in the suburbs and far better connectivity at lower prices in communities throughout the country, I can hardly understand how Seattle will be competitive in the near future, let alone by 2020, without some smart investments in broadband.

But I don't want this criticism to drown out the many ways in which Harrell "gets it." Harrell may have simply tried to keep his thoughts to a manageable 15 pages vs 45.

For instance, he discusses options if the private sector continues to fail at meeting Seattle's needs:

However, if the private market cannot or chooses not to meet this emerging need and a record is established that demonstrates this conclusion, the city should aggressively fill this void by lawfully investing into this opportunity as cities have done in other jurisdictions throughout the country. I use the term “aggressively,” because the city should not condone any tactical delays caused by incumbent providers.

Harrell goes on to lay out options for public investment from the City. Inexplicably, he writes:

Establishing another city-controlled monopoly, even if using a wholesale model, requires careful examination and justification.

Depending on who you ask, the City will be the second, third, or even fourth competitor in broadband… so I do not know how that could be termed a monopoly. Further, if it were done on a wholesale basis where the City would invite independent operators to offer services, claims of it being a monopoly would be inaccurate as it would create much more robust competition.

He spends a lot of time weighing wholesale vs. retail and I mostly agree with his thoughts. However, I wish he had spent more time discussing the additional benefits of such a network in working with Seattle City Light to improve their services and move toward a smarter grid. The potential is tremendous, but he only mentions it in the last paragraph (where he notes City Light is supposed to report back to the Council about it).

If Seattle wants to wait for another major city to do it, that is its prerogative. But it is hardly the way to remain a business and technological leader.