Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for the episode 153 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast about a movement for municipal networks in Seattle. Listen to this episode here.
Karen Toering: I think that Seattle’s ready. We’ve been doing some pretty good work out in the community. And, as Devin said, whenever we talk about this idea of municipal broadband, people get excited.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hello. You are listening again to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. And this is Lisa Gonzalez.
Recently, the City of Seattle has renewed its efforts to improve connectivity for residents and businesses. City leaders have started the process of serious inquiry into the possibility of establishing a municipal broadband utility. As the city moves forward, a group led by citizen activists, called Upgrade Seattle, has offered valuable support. In addition to educating the public, the group has worked with city leaders to find answers and establish alliances with other like-minded communities. This week, Chris talks with Sabrina Roach, Devin Glaser, and Karen Toering, from Upgrade Seattle. Be sure to check out upgradeseattle.com to learn more about the group and their effort to help the city achieve better connectivity.
We enjoy bringing you the Community Broadband Bits Podcast each week. As you know, it’s commercial-free. But it isn’t free to produce. Please take a moment to contribute at muninetworks.org or ilsr.org and help us continue sharing these great stories.
Now, here’s Chris, Sabrina, and Karen.
Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I’m Chris Mitchell. And today, I’m speaking with three great people from a new organization called Upgrade Seattle. I’ll start by introducing Sabrina Roach, someone who’s been organizing this, both in her professional capacity, with Brown Paper Tickets, as well as in her personal capacity, as a bit of a passion for her. So, welcome to the show, Sabrina.
Sabrina Roach: Hi, Chris. Thanks for doing this.
Chris: We also had Devin Glaser as well. Welcome to the show.
Devin Glaser: Thanks for having me.
Chris: And we also have Karen Toering. Welcome to the show.
Karen: Thanks so much.
Chris: Well, I’m really excited, because I think Seattle’s an incredibly vibrant community, where we can see a lot of exciting things happen. But let’s start by just asking, what is Upgrade Seattle? And, Devin, why don’t you kick it off?
Devin: Upgrade Seattle is basically an all-grassroots group of people who are really excited about pushing for our municipal broadband utility here in the City of Seattle. We’ve been kicking around the idea of maybe building a utility. We’ve tried out lots of different false starts. And we’re here to really push to actually get the network built, so that the city has its own owned and operated utility for all the residents of the city. We’re a very high-tech city. We’re very famous for being — you know, Amazon, and Microsoft’s back yard and everything. But there’s still a lot of neighborhoods that don’t have access to either Internet at all or high-speed Internet. And then, regardless of where we are, many of feel like our Internet’s too slow or too expensive. So, we’re really trying to tap into that need to build something for ourselves for the future.
Chris: And anything — Sabrina or Karen — would you like to add onto that at all?
Karen: I think that a lot of people sort of see Seattle as a place where technology and wealth kind of thrive. But the reality of it is that — I think, if we’re able to do this — create municipally-owned broadband for the City of Seattle — in a place where you would think that it already happens, I think it would be a model for other cities around the country to do the same. Because, you know, as Devin said, there’s a large portion of the community — even with all of this wealth, even with all of this technology — that are on the wrong side of the digital divide. And so, it happens here. And it’s probably happening in other cities all over the country in greater numbers.
Chris: Thank you, Karen. And, Sabrina, did you want to weigh in at all regarding your — sort of, what goals you bring to this effort?
Sabrina: Our Department of Information Technology has a community technology program. And they do reports every few years on digital inclusion in Seattle. And our latest report that came out, late last spring, shows that 93,000 Seattle residents don’t have access to the Internet in their home.
Chris: One of the things that we often see when people are talking about better networks is, a lot of times, it’s about gigabit. It’s about being able to spur economic development. But I’m hearing more of a discussion about equity, and being able to make sure everyone in the community has good Internet access. And, Karen, is that right? Is that a bigger motivator for you?
Karen: Well, yeah. And, you know, it’s just practical organizing. Because when the least of us do better, everybody does better. And so, we’re talking, you know, in some of the communities that we’re working in — For example, you know, people are using the Internet to fill out job applications. They’re using the Internet — When my son was in school, ALL of his homework, and ALL of his attendance, ALL of his grades were Internet-based. So if I didn’t have access to the Internet, then I could not do my job as a parent, to basically monitor my son’s activity in school. And that — my son gradu- — my son’s 25. So that was, you know — what — six years ago. More and more of our daily services. To be quite truthful, many of the ways we interact with the City of Seattle are online. And so, you know, what we are talking about is certainly having fiber-to-the-home, having gigabit speed. But, you know, within that, we’re just basically talking about that last mile, which none of the private entities have wanted to build for the least vulnerable of our community. So, the marketplace is not working for those folks. You know, certainly the businesses that, you know, want gigabit speed, and the users who, you know, are creators, or gamers, or doing, you know, work that requires high broadband capacity need it. But first, let’s take care of those folks that are just trying to get a job. You know, there’s a lot of rhetoric out there about how poor people don’t want to work. But if you have to fill out a job application — if you have to get on the bus, go to the library to fill out a job application on a computer that you can only use for 90 minutes, you’re making our most vulnerable community work the hardest to pull themselves up out of poverty.
Chris: Right. I think — and that’s on top of, often, language barriers and other challenges that you have when you’re in a big city with the kind of cosmopolitan population that you have.
Sabrina: When the City of Seattle did their digital indicators report that they published last spring, they weren’t entirely clear on how many immigrant refugee families didn’t have access to the home. So, they did report that the number was higher for them. So, while we have this 93,000 number, for folks in Seattle who don’t have access to the Internet at home, they did acknowledge that that number is higher with immigrant refugee families.
Devin: We’re still focused on — equity is kind of the number-one concern. But gigabit Internet is very much the Internet of tomorrow, if it’s not already the Internet of today. So, in bringing everybody up to the same level, they shouldn’t be stuck on 1 Mbps or 5 Mbps. We want people to actually have access to the technologies that let them succeed in the future economy. I think if we were to say, we want everyone to have the “Internet,” that wasn’t actually quality Internet, and we bring them to a level, and then the rest of the community would then surpass them again, leaving them again on the wrong side of the divide. So, we’re just excited about gigabit Internet as some of the other cities around. We just want to make sure that EVERYONE has access to it. Because, right now, basically no one does. But, particularly, those disenfranchised have NO access.
Chris: And I think there’s a — it’s a compelling vision to say we’re going to focus on making sure that everyone has that basic access. And I’m curious what steps you’ve outlined, as part of Upgrade Seattle. What are you doing to move us in that direction?
Sabrina: Well, first of all, it’s an evolving campaign. We are purposefully leaving some of it really open-ended, so that we can get community input on it. We’re going to be doing a series of neighborhood study sessions, so that we can talk about, what is municipal broadband? Why is it important that we have a city-owned and -operated Internet utility? Overall — and it’s a strategy I think a lot about — is, how do we feed that all-city conversation? And how does it play out in local media? So that means really good relationships with various journalists around town who are willing to cover this issue. As well as civic events — various institutions that are recognized for their all-city conversation.
And then there’s the in-the-neighborhood strategy. Seattle has just moved to a neighborhood-districts City Council, rather than all-city City Council people. Folks with Upgrade Seattle who live in these different districts are running point on those neighborhood study sessions.
And then the third prong would be the discussion among various identity and affinity groups, as well as different arts and culture circles. I think it’s really important that we include a culture work element to this, because we want to recognize and seed that sense of inevitability. And I think one of the places where we do that — slowly, so that it grows momentum over time — is in those circles.
I think that the Internet service providers in Seattle — the incumbents — are going to probably throw a lot of money at this. We already see them improving their service, making higher speeds available. And we want to see more of that. I think that’s a great side benefit to running a campaign like this. They’re going to be throwing money at this. And I think that authentic relationship building in those study sessions are one of the best ways to fight that. There’s great strength at the neighborhood level, doing grassroots organizing.
Devin: So, we’re in a good place, just a) with the recent FCC ruling. I think that kind of shows that, nationally, the movement is on our side — is moving towards cities building out their own networks.
Chris: This is the ruling regarding North Carolina and Tennessee, where they’re restoring local authority. And all the statements that, I think, Chairman Wheeler and a number of others have been making in support of municipal approaches.
Devin: Um, yes. Definitely. It’s kind of showcasing that we’re really seeing this as something that cities can do for themselves — in a way that private companies haven’t really picked up the challenge, so to speak. And then, we’re seeing that, you know, Obama has come out for it. Seattle is in a place where, actually, we don’t have any state-level barriers preventing this city alone. But there are other cities in the state that are preempted. And so we have state legislators that have considered working with us.
Right now, the entire City Council is up for reelection, and they’ve all been very open to hearing about what they could do with the public Internet network. Everything’s coming together right now amongst people who could actually help vote in this network. And that feels pretty good. But a lot of that is based on the support we have from the community — from all the different neighborhoods, from all the different organizations.
Chris: Right. I think you have this wonderful opportunity, in some ways, because some people are organizing where there’s not a lot of existing support within the City Council. Or they may not have a municipal utility that would be supportive. But Seattle’s — you’re one of those rare large cities that actually has its own municipal electric. So there are a number of things going your way already. So it gives you a little bit more hope perhaps.
And, Karen, let me ask you if there’s anything you wanted to contribute in terms of what the path forward is.
Karen: Well, I think Sabrina brought up a really good point, just in terms of, you know, what we’re going to see, even just by launching this effort — by our little grassroots group saying, let’s see if this is possible. We’re already seeing improved services from the incumbent operators. And I don’t think that’s going to change. I think that what people are going to see — you know, even if we are successful with building municipal broadband — municipally-owned AND -operated broadband — here in Seattle, is that we’re going to see the other providers step up their game. Everybody’s going to get better service, because the competition is going to be there. People are going to know that they really do truly have options. They can go with municipal broadband or they can go with a private provider. But that private provider is really going to have to bring something more valuable than what they have given us in the past. And what they have given us in the past is higher rates. They’ve turned down the spigot, because — that’s the other thing, is, they could actually open the portal more than they are, but they have decided to create scarcity around bandwidth. And it’s going to be their undoing. You have to remember that these are the same people that said to us, when we were working on the Telecommunications Act, that no one will ever watch television on their computer. Well, they were wrong then. And I think they’re going to be wrong now.
Chris: It’s always good to get a sense of the history from people who are — who have been at this for a long time, Karen. I’m curious if I could just ask each of you — and I’d like to start with Karen. You know, if there’s just a brief way you can describe why you’re personally motivated to be putting so much effort into something that, quite honestly — I mean, this is a real long-term kind of effort. This — and I think it’s important. But I’m curious, what motivates you?
Karen: That’s the other thing, that I’m really hoping that we can insert in our community organizing work. This kind of work, and what we saw with the most recent victory with the FCC, you know, took at least a decade. And hundreds of thousands of signatures. And thousands of people, you know, working in their own neighborhoods, in their own communities, to put out that sort of — that common voice — to put that pressure. So, here in Seattle, I feel like we may not win this first time around. But, as one of our City Council members said to us earlier, you know, this idea is not new to the City of Seattle. Previous administrations have brought this idea to the forefront. And previous mayors have, you know, exhibited some kind of limited support for it. And our response to it — well, maybe the timing wasn’t right. So I think that people need to, you know, sort of be prepared for this to take a minute. I mean, I feel like the other communities that did this work — like our Chattanoogas, and our — you know, and our Wilsons, and North Carolinas — they didn’t just start last month, doing this organizing to come to the — you know, to the place where they are today. And I think Seattle has to expect, for this process to be stretched out. Because there’s a lot at stake. There’s a lot at stake for the people in our community. And there’s a lot at stake, also, for the private service providers that are in our city.
Chris: Devin, let me ask you, why are you motivated to do this work?
Devin: I’ve been kind of following the different murmurings of people who wanted to build out a public network for over eight years now. It was just kind of a great idea I heard back in ’06-’07, when people were running for mayor then. And it’s still exciting, just on its own. I mean, personally, I’d just love to have better access to the Internet for less. But also realizing that there’s so many other people in the community that don’t have access to, basically, the backbone you need to take part in the local economy. I feel like it’s just a need. And I tend to be pretty motivated to take care of, you know, this community, and help build it up, and build it up for the future. So, excited about what we can build for ourselves, so that we’re more self-sustainable, more ready to reach into the future, more economically successful than we already are. We’re doing pretty well here. So I think we’re at a place where we can really build some new infrastructure for the future.
Karen: Suffice it to say that, you know, it is part of my everyday life. And I’m not — I wouldn’t consider myself, you know, a superuser. But a life without access to the Internet, for me, would seriously hamper a lot of the things I do in the world, you know, just as a human being, and as an organizer.
Chris: And, Sabrina, let me ask you that as well.
Sabrina: This issue is very personal to me because of how it’s impacted my family, as well as how it’s impacted our communities here, that I’ve seen through media justice and media reform work over the years. Our family runs a small business in Seattle, in the industrial area. We use forklift trucks and heavy machinery parts. And we’ve been running it for 45 years. And, due to changes in the industry, a reliable Internet connection is very important to this family business. For years, my father knew that there was conduit right outside the doorstep of his business. And he couldn’t get CenturyLink to respond to his requests for service. And it took the NBC affiliate in Seattle interviewing me about Upgrade Seattle for my dad to get a call. And no one should have to have their daughter get media attention about a project like this to get a call back from a company.
Chris: Well, you could have waited for Fathers’ Day and made something of it.
Sabrina: [laughs] I’ve also had first-hand experience of intimidation by Comcast in our town. Comcast has made strategic, multi-year investments in local nonprofits. And my former partner used to work at a girls’ media organization, called Reel Girls. And they did a tweet — totally in alignment with their social media policy — that was critical of Comcast hiring Meredith Attwell Baker. So, basically, the organization retweeted something from Free Press that was being critical about it, and added some of their own commentary. And Comcast pulled about $17,000 from them that they use for their girls’ media summer program. And media justice and new reform community around the country really stepped up. But that’s really concerning, that Comcast would be that retaliatory.
So, I’m concerned, with this campaign, that if some of those nonprofits that receive funding from Comcast and the other ISPs — I’m just very concerned. Will they be able to speak out about issues that are important to their communities? How will they be silenced by these donations?
Chris: In fact, I was just — I just saw a notice that the — one of the Boy Scout troops that had supported the Comcast merger with Time Warner Cable was rewarded with millions of dollars — I think a personal — from one of the — a personal donation from one of the executives — that allowed them to build something new. And it’s just — it’s a reminder of what you’re saying, in terms of — I mean, there’s nothing new to this. Rockefeller did the same things, as he was pillaging and hurting our economy. So, you know, I’m absolutely in alignment with you.
But one of the questions that comes to me as we talk about this is how other people are reacting when you share this vision with them. And, Devin, you had mentioned earlier, in the pre-call, that you thought — you had some interesting reactions. So let me ask you, how do people react when you tell them about what you want to do in Seattle?
Devin: I mean, overwhelmingly enthusiastically. And occasionally with expletives. Internet really is a utility no one I know tries to go without it at all. And they’ve all met with very frustrating service. Both just in pricing, both in customer service. And then in the actual quality of service they’re getting. People aren’t really happy with what they’re getting. And so, I think nobody thought that they could build out their own network — or that the city could provide the service, instead of a private company that doesn’t seem to care too much. And so, once you kind of plant that idea in their head, you just see like a light bulb go off in their head, because they’re so excited about what they could possibly have. We all kind of know that we’re not getting a good deal. But we also don’t really see how to get out of that system. And I think a publicly-owned, publicly-operated city Internet could really provide a way out, for people that feel trapped with their current service. So, there’s just a whole lot of enthusiasm.
Chris: I’m cognizant that we’re running a little bit over. But I want to ask a final question, which is the role of other cities. And I’m curious to what extent you’ve had contact with people in other cities that are trying to do something similar, or sharing lessons with you.
Sabrina: Well, Chris, you’ve put me in contact with folks in Baltimore as well as in Louisiana, who are working on these issues. I’ve also gotten calls from folks in Buffalo, NY, and Portland, OR. And I’m looking forward to us all creating a bit of a learning community around this, sharing strategies, sharing information, and generally supporting each other in this work.
Chris: And I think there’s some sort of event, with a very — very handsome and very modest public commentator on some of these issues coming up. Why don’t you tell us about that?
Sabrina: Sure. Our Upgrade Seattle launch event will be at Town Hall Seattle on June 18th. We do have you, Chris, coming to town, and also Hollis Wong-Wear, one of our local arts and culture leaders. We’ll also be doing a strategy session at that event. You and Hollis will be talking. And then, at the second half of that event, we’ll break out into groups by City Council district, and start mapping out what kinds of events they can do in their neighborhoods.
Chris: Excellent! Thank you. And let me just give you a chance, Karen, did you have any final thought?
Karen: I think that Seattle’s ready. We’ve been doing some pretty good work out in the community. And, as Devin said, whenever we talk about this idea of municipal broadband, people get excited. And I just think the time is pretty ripe in Seattle.
Chris: Terrific. Well, thank you all for coming on the show and telling us about Upgrade Seattle.
Sabrina: Thank you, Chris.
Karen: Thank you, Chris.
Lisa: Send us your ideas for the show. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org . Remember to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. We are @communitynets . Thank you to Persson for the song, “Blues walk,” licensed through Creative Commons. Thank you for listening, and have a great day.
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