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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

July 23, 2012 at 3:59 PM

Seattle divvies up network, ending big broadband plan

Following the wishes of Mayor McGinn, the Seattle City Council today voted to begin parting out the city’s fiber network.

The vote will let McGinn’s office begin leasing excess capacity on the network to interested parties. It removes requirements that publicly owned fiber be limited to public and educational use.

The choice portions of the network — such as municipal fiber in South Lake Union — will probably go first, to interests such as real estate developers.

Once the valuable sections are snapped up, the revenue they generate won’t be available to help cover the cost of a citywide network providing service to everyone, in rich and poor neighborhoods.

Although a press release touts the vote as progress toward improved broadband for homes and businesses, the ordinance approved today does not require that sort of public benefit.

Really, by deciding to offer up the spare capacity on its network piecemeal, the city is in effect giving up on its grand plans to use its fiber system as the backbone of a citywide, ultrafast broadband network.

That was the vision the city pursued since 2004, but it went nowhere the past few years. A symbolic end came in April when the plug was pulled on a pilot program offering free Wi-Fi in Columbia City and the University District. I noted the broadband plan’s demise in May.

The ordinance authorizes private use of excess capacity on the city’s network. It says the fiber may be “used for any lawful purpose,” but the city will “give priority to users that will offer or improve high speed fiber-based Internet service to surrounding businesses and residences.”

City tech administrators are going to be under pressure to cut deals. The council loaned the network-leasing effort $50,000, which is expected to be repaid from lease proceeds.

The best part of the ordinance is that it requires the city’s technology office to provide annual reports on private interest in the city’s network and progress on leases.

Who knows what will happen next? Maybe parts of Seattle’s publicly funded fiber network will end up being leased to existing providers like Comcast, WAVE and CenturyLink.

If so, the city ought to plan for annual rate increases and monthly fees for the connectors the cable companies need to access the city network.

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