Municipal broadband--it's time


For over a decade Seattle has talked about building a municipal broadband network. The time is now.

Owning our own broadband network has multiple benefits. It would support our local economy, connect our residents to opportunity, preserve net neutrality, and save us money. Other cities, and other nations, have seen the benefits of connecting everyone to the internet with reliable high-speed connections and we need to do the same.

The biggest objection so far has been cost - according to a 2015 study constructing a municipal fiber optic broadband network to serve every house in Seattle is projected to cost between $440-660 million dollars.  That would run fiber optic cable down every street, accessible to every household.

But if you only look at the construction cost you miss the bigger picture - which is how much money you save by not having to pay Comcast or CenturyLink for your service.  When you compare the two, you get gigabit speed uploads and downloads and you put money back in your pocket.

Now there are a lot of different financial structures for a municipal broadband network. Most of the costs could be covered by taxes, or the cost could be split between taxes and monthly subscription fees. There are good reasons to debate what kind of tax, and the best way to split the cost between taxes and monthly fees.

But one thing is clear - a municipally run network will be far cheaper for consumers than our current for-profit oligopoly.  And citywide it can provide a far superior quality of service for every household, effectively ending the digital divide in Seattle.

Here’s one example of costs from broadband advocacy group Upgrade Seattle. The city could finance a fiber optic network with a five year property tax increase that would cost the average household $21 a month, and then charge a monthly subscription fee of $45.  Additional subscriptions to services like Netflix or Hulu would cost yet more.  But even so, compare that to the $155 average bill from CenturyLink.  While the study looked at property taxes, I would be more interested in looking at more progressive taxes to fund the system.  For even greater equity benefits, we could look at low subscription fees, with exemptions for low income families, to ensure nobody is excluded.

Some people suggest this is not the best role for government, we should leave this to the private sector.  But we already successfully operate utilities for electricity, water, stormwater, sewage and garbage. We also own our own road network. The ubiquity and importance of the internet means we should no longer rely on the private sector, anymore than we would rely on the private sector to build our roads or supply our water. The costs of network infrastructure means that just as with our public utilities, the most efficient way to provide service is through the public, not the private sector.

Others suggest the city should partner with the private sector. When I was Mayor in 2011, the city put out a request for proposals. We offered our unused fiber capacity at a nominal cost to any company that would provide citywide fiber optic on an open access network. They would take the financial risk, and our residents would get the network. Comcast and CenturyLink declined to respond and we chose a startup called Gigabit Squared. While the deal looked great for the city, they could not raise the capital to make it work, and had to abandon the project. The message I took away is public-private partnerships are not the solution. The best solution is to commit to building it ourselves.

Let’s be clear - Comcast and CenturyLink will fight this with everything at their disposal. They do not want a threat to their reliable profits.  But the time is right for municipal broadband.

If elected mayor, I will immediately convene a task force to get public input and design a true municipal broadband network. One that we will own, that will reduce costs to our residents, increase our economic vitality, and increase equity.  Just as prior generations of Seattleites wisely launched a public power utility; just as they secured safe drinking water from the Cascade mountains; now it is our turn to secure a truly open and robust internet access for Seattle residents. A utility not run for corporate profit, but one that that is run for our benefit.