Earlier this week, Council member Alex Pedersen introduced a resolution requesting the city’s IT department to take a look at what it would take to ensure all Seattle residents have access to broadband-speed Internet access.
Disparities in access to broadband Internet has been a long-simmering issue in City Hall, brought front-and-center once again by the COVID-19 crisis and the need for many Seattle residents to work, attend school, and access healthcare services remotely from home.
It’s worth reviewing the last five years’ worth of activity, to help contextualize this new request for another look.
In 2015, at a time when Comcast and CenturyLink were visibly dragging their feet on deploying broadband Internet access in low-income neighborhoods, the city conducted a feasibility study of launching its own municipal broadband utility. The results were not what was hoped for: the report concludes that it would take at least $500 million in capital investments to deploy the system, it would need to be priced at about $75 per month, and it would require at least 40% of Seattle households to sign up in order to break even.
Needless to say, the proposal was shelved, and the city turned to Plan B: figuring out how to do something more focused that addressed the communities being left behind rather than the whole city. A February 2017 study identified 12 neighborhoods and six additional public facilities that should be the highest priorities for providing free or very affordable Internet access in order to close the gap. The city published a “request for information” to wireless carriers for proposals on how those eighteen areas could be served, but that effort too quietly went nowhere. Instead, then-Council President Bruce Harrell pushed for the city to expand free public wifi hotspots at city facilities including libraries and community centers, as well as additional funding for the Seattle Public Library’s free wifi hotspot loan program. The city also pushed for an expansion of Comcast’s discounted rate program for low-income households.
In 2018, the city did a survey of technology access by Seattle residents. The results, published last March, were somewhat surprising: 95% of Seattle households had Internet access at home (88% with fixed broadband), and 93% had an Internet-capable cell phone. The broadband-access figure dropped to 75% for persons living in poverty, however (caveat: the margin of error on this is really high: 10% or more). The discount programs available were not well-known be the people qualified access them, and only 23% of low-income households were signed up for one of them.
According to a press release from Pedersen’s office, he is not necessarily looking to lead another charge for municipal broadband, but rather as a first step simply to collect updated information:
As we enter a challenging budgetary environment, Pedersen wants to update the assumptions about financial risk, competitive challenges, economic development benefits, and partnership opportunities to achieve universal broadband. Pedersen’s Resolution seeks cost estimates, lessons learned from other jurisdictions that have attempted municipal broadband, infrastructure needs, a Race and Social Justice analysis to ensure equitable distribution of the affordable access, and partnerships that can accelerate implementation of the Internet for All Action Plan.
It’s certainly worth collecting updated information, since much has changed — and more is about to change. In 2015, 5G mobile networks were largely speculation, but today they are being actively deployed. Unlike previous generations of mobile wireless technology, 5G brings data speeds of around 10 gigabits per second, making it competitive with high-end residential offerings from Comcast and other wired-broadband vendors. That means more competition — pushing prices down, hopefully — but also cheaper and faster deployment since wires don’t need to be run to each home. It will also be good to get recent statistics on the “digital divide” to help decide whether the city’s approach should continue to be focused on the (apparently shrinking) number of people who don’t have broadband access at home, or to think bigger.
For those hoping that this will be the moment where the city goes all-in on municipal broadband and we all dump Comcast, don’t hold your breath. Unless the city wanted to deploy its own 5G network, the costs for it to deploy its own system will only have gone up since the 2015 study. And at a time when the city is facing a significant budget shortfall and already has a huge unmet demand for investments in affordable housing and homelessness, spending half a billion dollars up-front to build a system that is likely to face even more competition in the coming years does not seem like a smart move. Hatred of Comcast alone isn’t reason enough for the city to go into the broadband Internet business. That said, if the changes in technology and in the communications industry have created some new opportunities — broad or focused — it might make sense to further explore them.
Coincidentally, today Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson joined several his fellow AGs in sending a letter to Congressional leaders urging them to provide funding in the next federal COVID relief package to reduce disparities in home Internet connectivity that have created barriers to access school, teleworking, and telemedicine during the emergency.
Pedersen’s resolution asks the city to deliver a first report by mid-September on short-term options to increase access equitably, with subsequent reports to follow on longer-term options.
Since the resolution is neither “necessary and routine” nor “necessary for responding to the COVID-19 emergency,” the Council can’t take it up until the Governor lifts his proclamation limiting Council actions to those domains. Once that happens, Pedersen will take it up in his Transportation and Utilities Committee.
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