Pedersen wants city to take another shot at “Internet for all”

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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6 comments

  1. Municipal broadband should be a public utility, an essential service not a profit making enterprise for corporations as it is now.

    1. There is a strong argument to be made for that position. I would suggest, however, that the rise of 5G is an equally strong example of an argument against it: there are multiple ways to deliver broadband Internet access, and Seattle residents benefit from choice, competition, and flexibility. Everyone needs electricity, sewer and water, and in Seattle there are few wells and few homes with sufficient power generation and storage capabilities to go off the grid, so they are really services for everyone. So infrastructure investments in power, sewer and water provide for nearly everyone and are long-term sustainable. Communications infrastructure goes obsolete at a much faster rate; if it didn’t to that, then municipal communications utilities would be much more attractive.

      There is nothing stopping someone from creating a not-for-profit broadband Internet access company here in Seattle.

  2. I still believe that the city’s estimates of cost and buy-in were engineered to meet the “we shouldn’t do it” goal the IT folks wanted. They based the build-out numbers you’re quoting on only offering gigabit speeds. Plenty of folks were in the survey saying they’d buy lower speeds for less.. Gigabit hardware is even cheaper now and a lot of folks would be fine with 100 mbit at a reasonable, stable price that doesn’t involve calling in for promotions.

    The 2015 study Appendix E – Q7 Approximately how much does your family pay PER MONTH for your home Internet service? More than $70 was 25% of responses with $51-60 being 19% of responses.

    Q11A Willing to switch 100 Mbps: $55 per month – 66% very willing.
    Q11B Willing to switch 100 Mbps: $65 per month – 32% very willing

    Q12A Willing to switch 1 Gbps: $55 per month – 71% very willing
    Q12B Willing to switch 1 Gbps: $65 per month – 49% very willing
    Q12C Willing to switch 1 Gbps: $75 per month – 28% very willing

    Sadly, I think a real missed opportunity was to establish a long term data transmission lease with city light’s new smart meters on a city-owned fiber backbone. It could have been a great way to have some baseline funding locked in.

    1. the smart meters are are so low-bandwidth that they wouldn’t benefit from a new fiber system, and I believe the local hub radios already use the city’s backbone.

      As I said in the article, it will be good to get some updated figures because a lot has changed in broadband in the last 5 years.

      1. …And change has happened, Comcast continues to roll out their wireless network using consumer’s routers. They are extending their current monopoly to create a new one in wireless. Comcast/Xfinity require customers to lease and then power the devices that create the “xfinity” wireless network throughout the city.
        As anyone who lives in a dense environment can tell you, the wireless spectrum is finite.
        Their network is competing for the same resources that anyone else’s private network is competing for.
        The city’s contract with Xfinity should examine this at a deeper level.

        1. The Comcast/xfinity wifi network thing is fascinating. They actually don’t require customers to lease and power their routers; I’m a Comcast customer and I opted out of their router and bought my own. But they make it the default, and the alternative is a bunch of work.

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