Seattle Met Magazine, June 26, 2012
For years Seattle has welched on its promise to build a municipal broadband network. We may have Tacoma to blame—and thank—for that.
For Seattleites desperately in need of a break on their Internet bill, it had to be a drag to discover in early May that their last best hope was fizzling. “Seattle Pulls Plug on its Broadband Network,” read the Seattle Times headline, suggesting the City was abandoning its years-old plan to offer a municipal Internet service that would operate like a public utility. That wasn’t entirely true: What Seattle’s Department of Information Technology actually dumped was a project launched in 2005 to blanket Columbia City with free Wi-Fi. But it was another harsh reality check for anyone in Seattle banking on one day having a legitimate alternative to Comcast.
Plans for a municipal network began back in 2004, when then–city council member and former NBC News foreign correspondent Jim Compton floated the idea in a formal resolution: Why couldn’t the City string its own fiber-optic lines on every utility poll from Lake City to West Seattle and elbow its way into the Internet market? The following year there was even talk of establishing an Office of Broadband to see the plan through. Two years after that the City commissioned a 42-page report that outlined the cost of such a network and whether Seattle could pull it off. (The answers to those questions: $400 million and yes.) And then…nothing.
In 2009, Mike McGinn, then just an upstart candidate for mayor, courted the tech vote—and won the election—in part by promising to make good on that five-year-old plan to make citywide broadband a reality. “Due to a lack of vision and political will, the current administration has left the plan to sit on the shelf gathering dust,” he wrote on his website. Weeks before taking office he even went so far as to meet with Tacoma mayor Bill Baarsma to discuss Click Network, the wholesale broadband service that Tacoma Power built in 1998. Baarsma and members of the Click team were all too happy to show off their system, which had long since become a nationally recognized success. But they warned McGinn that the marketplace had changed dramatically. “I say this all the time, and I said it the last time I met with Mayor McGinn,” says Diane Lachel, Click’s government and community relations manager. “The utility would not make the same decision today.”
In fact, for all it did to transform Tacoma into a digital utopia of zippy download speeds and affordable rates, the Click Network may make the best argument for why Seattleites will never enjoy the same luxuries.
Tacoma city council members knew that funding a municipal network was the right thing to do when Leo Hindery called them stupid. Hindery was the proverbial local boy done good, a Bellarmine Prep grad who’d gone on to become the CEO of a major national company. Unfortunately that company was TCI, Tacoma’s only cable provider—and the barrier between the city and the modern age. In 1997 Tacomans had access to just 31 cable stations. If they wanted to watch a pay-per-view boxing match, they had to pick up a set-top box for that event from the company’s local office, hook it up themselves, and return it when the match was over. And before reaching some customers’ homes the standard cable signal passed through more than 30 connection points, picking up more noise at each one, until the picture was reduced to nothing but snow. Yet TCI (along with Tacoma’s telephone provider at the time, U S West) refused to upgrade its woefully out-of-date system. So Tacoma Public Utilities decided to build its own.
TCI wouldn’t go down easily, of course. For the next year, as the City built out its system, the cable giant took advantage of the utility’s biggest weakness: All of its plans, from the kind of equipment it would buy to its construction schedule, were public information. So when Tacoma Power put in an order with its supplier for, say, coaxial cable, it found that TCI had already bought every foot of it. “But we started in one area of town and luckily we were able to get just enough material,” says Pat Bacon, Click’s technical operations manager. “We just inched our way through it and, before you knew it, we were a presence.” By July 1998, Click had its first cable subscriber, and the first broadband Internet user signed on in December 1999.
Viewed as a for-profit operation—and as a model for Seattle to emulate—it’s hard to sing Click’s praises. But that may be the wrong way of looking at it. “A municipal network should be evaluated on the same basis of how we evaluate roads and other infrastructure,” says Christopher Mitchell, founder of muninetworks.org, which tracks community broadband issues. “Which is to say that the point of the road is not to produce revenue for the general fund. It’s to produce economic development and other benefits.” Viewed that way, Click was an irrefutable boon to Tacoma’s economy. “We wouldn’t be talking about Tacoma right now if they hadn’t made that investment,” he adds.
Unfortunately for Seattleites, that may be why we’ll never see a municipal broadband network in Seattle: We don’t need one, at least not in the way Tacoma did in 1997. And the risks of building one, both financially and in terms of pushback from the cable industry, outweigh the rewards. “That’s why no major city has taken this on yet,” Mitchell says. “Any good that can come from it will take at least four or five years to materialize. And if anything goes wrong, the mayor will be pilloried for it.”