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November 14, 2011 9:21 AM

Seattle broadband network floated again, sort of

Posted by Brier Dudley

Seven years after it began pursuing a city broadband network, Seattle's trying again. Sort of.

Mayor Mike McGinn and other dignitaries will announce a new, smaller effort Monday morning in South Lake Union. The plan is to offer city infrastructure to lure phone or cable companies willing to build ultrafast broadband in one or two neighborhoods.

More and faster broadband is better, but I'm not sure this is going to result in much change. It's unlikely to help many homes or businesses truly suffering from a lack of fast service, especially since the targeted neighborhoods already have pretty good broadband.

Helping a small pocket of the city may be more realistic than pursuing top-notch broadband across the city, but it pushes the true goal farther back.

As it did in 2006 and 2007, the city's offering access to 500 miles of fiber-optic lines the public spent at least $50 million to install.

SLUfibermap.jpg
This time around, the city's hooked up with the University of Washington and an alliance of universities across the country that's trying to get companies to provide faster service to research schools and their surrounding communities.

The alliance, called Gig U, wants to foster new research and development of applications using ultrafast connections. Success in these areas could prod telecommunications companies to provide more ultrafast broadband. Project proposals from companies are due early next month.

Broadband companies negotiate for city right of way to deliver service in Seattle. But McGinn said the city doesn't have enough leverage over the companies to extract better pricing or service from them.

"This is why it's so important for the city to start looking at different models... to start driving some competition or create the competition ourselves, ultimately."

But the city has started off on this road before and never went anywhere.

A high-profile broadband task force formed in 2004 said the city should pursue a network that would provide affordable, fiber-optic connections to everyone in the city by 2015, with minimum speeds of 20 to 25 megabits per second.

That led to a request for proposals from telecommunications companies willing to partner with the city, and talks with 11 providers. In 2007, Mayor Greg Nickels wanted to pursue a fiber network but the effort fizzled before there were any firm proposals to build anything.

One possibility that was never pursued was to have City Light become a broadband provider, similar to the approach taken by the city of Tacoma and other public utilities.

McGinn said that could be an option someday. But first the city will try to encourage a pilot project, in neighborhoods adjacent to the UW or UW facilities -- meaning South Lake Union or the University District.

I asked McGinn and Bill Schrier, the city's chief technology officer, why this will fare better than the city's earlier, more ambitious broadband plans.

Schrier said there's higher interest, driven by the federal broadband plan issued in 2010 and Google's 2010 offer to wire a few cities with ultrafast, experimental networks.

"There's a much wider awareness for broadband and its value than there was in 2007," Schrier said.

I hate to be critical about this because the need for better and more affordable broadband in America is real. There's not enough competition to bring prices down and there's little incentive for companies to provide faster service outside of dense, prosperous areas. But the project being floated today doesn't address those problems.

Also, Gig U's concerns about universities having ultrafast broadband do not apply to the UW proper. The UW has one of the world's fastest Internet connections. It's part of the Internet2 research consortium that's operating a new 100 gigabit per second network. Seattle is one of 10 cities connected by this network, enabling the UW to do cutting-edge research in computing and sciences.

South Lake Union is also an odd location for Monday's news conference. It may be the last place you'd talk about a broadband crisis.

A mass of fiber runs through the neighborhood, alongside the new Terry Avenue headquarters of Amazon.com.

"There's fiber all over South Lake Union from like eight carriers -- the biggest fiber route in the Northwest goes right down Terry," said John Van Oppen, chief executive of Spectrum Networks.

Spectrum provides 100 megabit-per-second Internet service to dozens of office and apartment buildings in the region, charging people $60 per month for unlimited usage.

Next spring, Spectrum services will be upgraded to 1 gigabit per second, at the same price. That speed is already available at Van Oppen's condo -- in South Lake Union.

Van Oppen said the city's making a good effort to improve broadband offerings, but he doesn't expect there will be a lot of private-sector interest in using its fiber to serve a neighborhood or two.

One reason is that fiber isn't as scarce a resource anymore. The biggest cost to provide ultrafast broadband is in the "last mile" connection, hooking up the individual homes and buildings.

"The cost isn't in anything but that last little bit," Van Oppen said. "The reason it's so expensive isn't because you need to get fiber from one of the data centers, it's because you need to get fiber into the building."

It's nice to support the Gig U effort, which may have better luck advancing broadband nationally than the FCC's federal plan.

But Seattle needs to be sure that in its eagerness to join the movement it doesn't give up fiber-optic capacity that city agencies and schools may need in the future.

The city also needs to be sure the public gets a good return on its infrastructure investment -- and not just intangible benefits.

Still hanging out there is the question of whether we'll ever see a citywide, municipal broadband service. If that's at all possible, the city has to take care it's not giving up fiber capacity the whole city may need someday, just to enhance neighborhoods that are already doing well.

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