Harrell pushing for expanding public Wi-Fi in Seattle

Wednesday afternoon in his Education, Equity and Governance Committee, Council President Bruce Harrell pushed the Seattle IT department to go farther and faster in investigating public Wi-Fi as an alternative to municipal broadband in key areas of the city.

As I reported earlier,  in response to a 2015 legislative request the city issued an RFI to find potential partners in deploying wireless Internet services in 18 high-priority areas Seattle. They also asked for submitters to discuss new business models for running such a service.

Digital equity is a major concern for Seattle city government. According to the city, studies show that 85% of Seattle households have some form of Internet access at home, and the other 15% — mainly low income households — rely on libraries, community centers, and other public facilities to access important Internet resources.  The city currently offers free public Wi-Fi at 27 Seattle Public Libraries and 27 community centers, along with the Seattle Center, City Hall, and Seattle Municipal Tower. Seattle Public Libraries also loans out Wi-Fi “hotspots” for free.

Some of the city’s public housing projects, including Yesler Terrace, currently are not served at all by a broadband provider. Harrell is particularly concerned about the disparate effects this has on education, when students can’t access resources on the Internet from home and parents can’t access, for instance, the Seattle Public Schools portal for parents to get information on how their kids are doing at school.

The reluctance of commercial providers to provide service in neighborhoods that are less lucrative has led groups to advocate for the city to start its own municipal broadband utility. The city studied the idea, but unfortunately concluded that the numbers don’t work. But it still believes that there is promise in offering public Wi-Fi in priority areas to help achieve its digital equity goals.

On Wednesday, representatives from Seattle IT summarized the responses they received. In a nutshell: most of the responses suggested a model similar to the advertising-supported model currently being used at Seattle Center. This raises two major issues:

  • Serving up citizens as an audience for advertising. Seattle Public Schools has a fairly strict policy on advertising, and if this system is intended to be a conduit for supporting education, it’s important to think about the limit on acceptable advertising.
  • Privacy. Companies offering free Internet access may also want to collect and sell information on users of the system as a revenue source.

Harrell felt that an acceptable middle ground could be found. “I’m more interested in delivering broadband service to the people than on staying pure to some principle, and I think there can be a balance. I don’t think anyone wants to walk into a park and see commercialization on the park, but there could be ways to allow the benefactor if you will, the sponsor, to have some level of advertisement, that we look at the greater good that we’re achieving. So I fall on the side that there’s a balance to be met if we can use private dollars to benefit the public.”

Seattle IT officials also noted that there were potentially some other options available for funding the system (or getting a provider to offer it for free). They have been closely monitoring the ramp-up of 5G wireless services, which can carry gigabit speeds wirelessly. But deploying those services requires an order of magnitude more equipment than the current generation, so carriers have started a “land grab” to get the rights to deploy a denser network of towers and antennas. The city sees all carriers planning to deploy 5G probably over the next 2-5 years, and many of them have approached the city with interest in acquiring access to the city’s infrastructure: real estate, right of way, fiber optic cable in the ground, “street furniture” such as utility poles, and other assets. They see a potential opportunity to barter some of those precious resources in return for increasing public Wi-Fi, potentially at no monetary cost to the city.  However, they also noted that doing so means accurately determining the value of those assets: they don’t want to miss an opportunity, but they also don’t want to undervalue their assets.

With Harrell’s encouragement, the city plans to step up its public engagement through advisory boards and community groups to determine which approaches to expanding public W-Fi would be acceptable to Seattle residents as well as fiscally responsible. Harrell wanted to see the effort move quickly, and said, “I think we’ve been a little skittish, and what we’ve been able to do at Seattle Center is a benefit to the public by all standards.” He suggested that they plan to pilot a few high-priority areas first, and use those to work through some of the policy issues such as privacy.

Seattle IT staff  believes they can come back with a short list of providers and sites within six months. Harrell liked that timing (or perhaps even a bit faster) as it aligns with the fall budget development process and would allow him to think about it while he considers his 2018 budget requests. The city will look at low-cost or no-cost options first, but might propose other options where the city subsidizes, fully funds, or even operates the network itself.

Expect to hear more in the early fall.