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

November 1, 2013 at 11:39 AM

Broadband sideshow in Seattle mayor race

You can tell it’s the silly season when the race for Seattle mayor veers into technology questions a few days before the election.

Silliest of all is that this sideshow is casting Mayor Mike McGinn as the pro-broadband mayor, because Comcast has donated to his opponent, state Sen. Ed Murray.

I take that back. The absolute nuttiest part is that this broadband question might eclipse the real issues facing Seattle, such as a transportation system that’s in shambles, mismanaged police and the city’s eroding leadership on regional issues.

Darts were thrown by McGinn in a Reddit chat and then The Washington Post dove in Thursday. Perhaps we should expect more Post coverage of local Seattle elections now that Jeff Bezos owns the paper.

The Post cast the story as entrenched telecom interests battling a mayor trying to finally give the city fast broadband service, saying that voters basically have a choice between good or bad broadband. Which is misleading and ridiculous.

Nor can you use McGinn to represent efforts by some cities around the country to provide municipal broadband service and challenge the cable monopoly.

Remember, McGinn’s the mayor who pulled the plug on Seattle’s free public Wi-Fi service.

McGinn simultaneously abandoned years of city planning to build a citywide broadband network and bring fast, affordable service to everyone.

Instead, McGinn opted to part out the city’s fiber-optic network assets, offering pieces here and there to telecom companies. That approach basically makes it impossible for anyone to use those assets for a citywide service, reaching everyone. Most likely it will result in cherry-picking of lucrative pockets of the city.

The city said it couldn’t afford to build its own broadband network. Then McGinn miraculously found enough financing capacity to fund a new basketball arena.

It gets better.

Guess who was the first broadband partner McGinn lined up to show that he was bringing more and faster service to the city? Comcast.

Two years ago McGinn was doing a grip-and-grin press conference in Pioneer Square with Comcast representatives as they announced plans to improve broadband in that area, by providing city conduit to Comcast.


McGinn’s 2011 press conference announcing broadband partnership with Comcast. City of Seattle photo.

Last year, McGinn reached a deal with another politically savvy telecom company, Gigabit Squared, a Cincinnati, Ohio-based company with offices in Washington, D.C. Instead of providing broadband for everyone — as McGinn promised during his 2009 run for mayor — Gigabit Squared and the city announced a plan to provide fast service in pockets of the city.

McGinn’s office characterized the Gigabit Squared deal as finally providing Seattle with ultrafast broadband. This ignored the fact that other companies were already offering ultrafast service in the city, including in areas that Gigabit Squared was going to reach via city-owned fiber.

Gigabit Squared was supposed to start offering the service this fall — right around election time. But the project’s been pushed back and may start next year.

McGinn doesn’t have much to show on the broadband front but he’s making lemonade from lemons.

Asked on Reddit what will happen to the project if Murray wins the race, McGinn hinted that it could be squelched because Comcast has donated to Murray’s campaign.

“I don’t know, but I do know Comcast gave Murray a big pile of money,” McGinn said.

Wow. If Gigabit Squared fails to come through, the responsibility will lie with McGinn, though. His office vetted the company, helped craft its plan for the city and agreed to its proposal.

If Gigabit Squared doesn’t get its act together soon and McGinn didn’t secure a guarantee that it would provide broadband service in Seattle, the next mayor may have an opening to cancel the agreement.

That might not be a bad thing if Gigabit Squared is flailing. It may also give the next mayor an opportunity to revive the city’s earlier, pre-McGinn plan to develop a municipal broadband service reaching everyone in the city. If it’s Murray, he’ll be under extra scrutiny during this process after taking Comcast donations.

Comcast drives people nuts. It does obnoxious things pushing people to pay more for cable and it charges too much for broadband.

But it’s naïve to think that choosing one of these candidates over the other in the Seattle mayor’s race will end Comcast’s monopoly and produce a cheap alternative for fast broadband. There is an opportunity for the city to pressure Comcast on cable TV services as its franchise is renegotiated, but the city has little to no say on broadband. Comcast is the dominant provider of broadband but it does have local competitors, including Wave Broadband and CenturyLink.

McGinn cast himself as the alternative to Comcast broadband four years ago, promising to bring better broadband to everyone. But after taking office, he chose to partner with Comcast and other telecom companies. This ended hopes of using the city fiber-optic network assets as the foundation of a municipal broadband network that truly would have given residents an alternative.

Comcast really doesn’t have much to worry about in Seattle. The city’s broadband vision is about as clear as that of a mole with cataracts.

Maybe Comcast is actually backing Murray because it’s frustrated with its service trucks spending hours stuck in traffic.

Comments | Topics: broadband, Comcast, gigabit squared


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