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

March 31, 2014 at 11:00 AM

Seattle giving CenturyLink a break, broadband boxes coming

Seattle likely will get somewhat faster broadband in the coming year from CenturyLink, but some homeowners may not cheer the upgrade.

In one of his first moves on the technology front, the city’s new mayor has pledged to grant a longstanding wish of CenturyLink and make it easier for the company to place refrigerator-like utility cabinets on the parking strips in front of people’s homes.

An AT&T broadband cabinet. Image from San Francisco public works department.

An AT&T broadband cabinet. Image from San Francisco public works department.

This purportedly will improve broadband speeds, though Mayor Ed Murray doesn’t have any guarantee that will happen.

I hate to question this faint signal of progress coming from City Hall, where a series of mayors have spent more than a decade hemming and hawing about how to improve residential-broadband service.

But starting out with a giveaway to CenturyLink may pit the phone company against neighborhoods.

Worst of all, it could create a controversy that slows down Murray’s more ambitious technology vision — to revive plans for a citywide, city-owned broadband network that would offer an alternative to CenturyLink, Comcast and other entrenched providers.

But first he’s taking on a city rule requiring phone companies to get approval from homeowners before installing service cabinets on the public right of way between their homes and the street.

Murray told me last week during a chat about his technology plans that he’s dropping the rule. He plans to submit a new rule to the City Council by the end of June. In the first year after it’s finalized, an estimated 349 cabinets will be installed.

The timing is surprising. Murray said he’s just beginning to look at the city’s options for broadband, so why start out by giving up leverage with the rule change?

Maybe using carrots versus sticks is how it’s done in Olympia, where Murray was previously a state senator.

CenturyLink has been a major Murray supporter. The company and its lobbyist gave his mayoral campaign the maximum possible donations. He also received a $5,000 donation from the state broadband-providers association.

Still, Murray said he’s interested in giving residents an alternative to the established providers. He’s more interested in pursuing a city-owned broadband network than another public-private partnership such as the Gigabit Seattle pilot project touted by his predecessor.

“We should revisit the public option; we’ve got a lot of dark wire,” he said, referring to extra capacity on the city’s network that could be the foundation of a citywide broadband service.

The Gigabit project raised hopes in the dozen or so neighborhoods where it was supposed to bring ultrafast and cheap service. But it turned out to be a house of cards with no financing; it held together just long enough to be a campaign point for former Mayor Mike McGinn.

A surface-mounted utility cabinet near my office in South Lake Union. This one may be for traffic light equipment, not broadband.

A surface-mounted utility cabinet near my office in South Lake Union. This one may be for traffic light equipment, not broadband.

Murray hasn’t been able to figure out exactly when the city knew the Gigabit project wasn’t going to happen, but he’s not dwelling on it. Instead he’s hoping to tap local experts to help the city develop a new approach.

Simultaneously, Murray is undertaking a related project to upgrade and consolidate various technology systems used internally by the city. He’s hoping a local tech company will loan an executive for a few years to help guide the overhaul.

“When you look at cities like Boston that are now marketing themselves as ‘Boston, digital city,’ Seattle’s far behind,” he said. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense when you look at where Seattle is and the resources and brain power that exists on IT issues here. So I think we have to step back and take a look at what we’re not doing and figure out how it is we’re going to move forward.”

That’s a lot to accomplish in a four-year term, especially considering how fast the city moves.

More options

Seattle began exploring broadband options back in 2004 mainly because Comcast and Qwest (the predecessor of CenturyLink) were taking too long to upgrade and charging too much.

Today there are more options — particularly for apartment dwellers in some dense areas of the city, who have access to ultrafast, affordable broadband from CenturyLink and Wave Broadband.

But CenturyLink still offers pokey speeds through much of the city; Comcast’s ultrafast offerings are expensive; and pockets of the city still have poor service.

All along, CenturyLink has chafed under Seattle’s rules and lobbied to overturn guidelines for siting equipment cabinets. Spokeswoman Meg Andrews said via email that it “canceled over 60 projects impacting over 21,000 households” in the two years after the cabinet rule was imposed in 2009.

The rule encourages phone companies to put their cabinets on private property or underground. It also involves property owners in the decision, which takes time.

A panel to access underground utilities along Denny Way in Seattle.

A panel to access underground utilities along Denny Way in Seattle.

Putting cabinets underground is more expensive. But it protects residents from having to face a big ugly box that may diminish their property value and attract graffiti.

Phone companies have options. They can mount the same equipment up on telephone poles, where it’s less of an eyesore. But that’s also more expensive than dropping a cabinet onto a parking strip. Andrews said it’s also limited by size restrictions on the poles.

It’s a balancing act. Seattle’s rule tipped in favor of homeowners. Now it’s shifting toward phone companies, which are taking advantage of the fevered rush for broadband among local governments.

Special treatment

The heat was turned up by Google’s experiments with ultrafast broadband service in Kansas City and a few other cities, which left mayors across the country fretting about being left behind.

San Francisco caved to AT&T in 2011. Despite an outcry from neighborhood groups, it softened rules requiring underground utilities and let AT&T install more than 700 cabinets on right of way around the city.

San Francisco didn’t simply erase the rules, though. Neighborhoods can still provide input on cabinet locations before they are installed, and city supervisors — its city council — can veto controversial cabinet locations.

Under the new rule Murray is proposing, landowners within 100 feet of a proposed cabinet would be notified and have two weeks to submit comments to the city transportation department, which will have final say on siting.

I’m not worried about CenturyLink. It’s done well enough the past few years to give billions of dollars back to shareholders through stock buybacks and dividends. Its consumer business had sales of $6 billion last year, with a 63 percent profit margin.

If it gets special treatment from the public, it should provide something special in return.

Perhaps someday it will offer Seattle homes a bleeding-edge, 1000 megabit per second service you can get from Google in Kansas City or from the city electric utility in Chattanooga, Tenn.

But that’s not the current plan. CenturyLink will use the cabinets in Seattle to finally upgrade its current DSL network, to provide maximum residential speeds of 40 to 100 megabits per second, Andrews said.

That’s about par with Comcast’s offering in much of the area. It’s still just one-tenth as fast as the service available to businesses and some Seattle apartment and condo buildings.

To really improve broadband for everyone in the city and join the first tier of wired cities, Seattle’s probably still going to have to build its own network.

Perhaps Murray can be the first mayor to make real progress here — if he doesn’t lose neighborhoods’ support and get sidetracked trying to help the old providers whose treatment of Seattle over the years made this an issue in the first place.

Comments | Topics: broadband, centurylink, Comcast


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