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
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.
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.”
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
Of course there is the argument that government should stay out of the way when it comes to broadband. Sometimes it is easy to forget how much the private industry benefits when government steps in to provide or facilitate basic infrastructure. Private industry benefits tremendously from our road systems, reliable power infrastructure, clean water, sewer systems and public safety. A robust, ubiquitous high-speed broadband infrastructure will facilitate interactions between businesses, allows private industry to deliver new and innovative services to customers and allows employees to be productive where ever they are at.