There's been some coverage of Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn's proposed broadband strategy recently that I'm pretty sure is getting it wrong. "Seattle pulls plug on its broadband network," the Seattle Times' Brier Dudley reported last week about the end of the city's free public Wi-Fi experiment along the Columbia City business district. "Seattle abandons plan for city broadband network," the SeattlePI.com's Scott Gutierrez added yesterday, reporting that the city is "ditching its years-long quest to build a city-sponsored fast broadband network."
Well, not exactly. Yesterday the mayor announced plans to seek a new ordinance that would permit the city to lease out to private partners more than 500 miles of city-owned fiber optic cable to help facilitate faster broadband to poorly served neighborhoods. Which is exactly what the mayor was talking about last year at a May 23, 2011 press conference he held in Pioneer Square:
"Today is a small tangible step," the mayor said, referring as much to his announcement that he would ask the City Council for permission to lease out city-owned conduit as he was to the ditch and work crew in the background. If the Council agrees, the city will put out a request for proposal to telco and cable operators to hook up and serve this four block stretch of Pioneer Square. If no one bids, McGinn said the city would consider "whether we can just do it ourselves."
The city ended up leasing its four-block stretch of Pioneer Square conduit to Comcast, which pulled fiber and is now serving more than 50 new customers in the neighborhood with high speed broadband service. That's exactly what McGinn is proposing for the rest of the 500 miles of city-owned fiber. And that's been his official broadband strategy for at least the past year.
Yes, the city shuttered the seven-year-old Columbia City public Wi-Fi test project last month, but public Wi-Fi was never part of McGinn's broadband plan, not even during the election. It's an entirely different technology than what the mayor has been pitching. So to view this as some sort of abandoning of McGinn's plan for a citywide broadband network is a misreading of events. McGinn is still pursuing citywide broadband, but via fiber to the home and business, not Wi-Fi.
And neither is McGinn abandoning the threat of building out a city owned and operated network. "If the private sector cannot get this done, then the City will have to look at doing it ourselves," McGinn wrote on his blog yesterday, echoing his words at last year's event. "That will take years to build and the cost would be significant," McGinn admits, "but it remains an option."
It's a carrot and stick approach. On the one hand McGinn is offering to lease city-owned conduit and dark fiber to private companies willing to offer high speed broadband to homes and businesses, lowering the upfront capital expense where the fiber already exists. On the other hand, if Comcast, CenturyLink et al continue to refuse to invest in bringing fiber to the home (and why should they when their near monopolies are currently profitable as-is?), they'll be in no position to complain should they suddenly find themselves in competition with a city-owned public broadband network.
What should we expect to happen? It's not clear. McGinn spokesperson Aaron Pickus says his office was pleasantly surprised when Comcast so quickly responded to last year's RFP for leasing the Pioneer Square conduit. Dozens of neighborhood businesses are benefiting from the partnership. So given the chance, perhaps service providers will be just as enthusiastic about leasing the rest of the 500 miles of under- or unused infrastructure scattered throughout the rest of the city?
Or perhaps a few years from now the lack of response from Internet service providers will provide the justification needed to move forwarded with a city owns and operated network?