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

April 9, 2014 at 1:19 PM

Seattle mayor clarifies broadband stance

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray today clarified his stance on improving broadband services in the city with a sort of vision statement posted on the city’s web site.

Murray’s statement follows my column last week on his broadband plans and interest in easing right-of-way rules to benefit CenturyLink.

Today, the mayor reiterated his interest in the potential of a city-owned broadband network, suggesting that the city will renew its decades-long quest to develop a public alternative to CenturyLink, Comcast and other established providers.

Murray also said he’s still looking at relaxing right-of-way restrictions to make it easier for CenturyLink and other companies to place utility equipment on parking strips in residential neighborhoods:

If we determine that changing the “director’s rule” helps achieve our goal of increasing Internet speeds and making Seattle a more competitive market for Internet providers, my office would then explore developing a more efficient process for community input around how and when utility cabinets are placed in our neighborhoods.

Murray is now saying that he’ll demand “significant improvements” in broadband service in return for relaxing city rules and lowering company’s costs.

That’s a new stance. Before my column ran, Murray’s office told me that “no specific commitments” for improved service had been obtained from broadband providers before it began developing the more generous right-of-way rules.

Murray highlighted this new position in today’s statement with bold text:

But if we make changes that lower the costs for businesses, these changes would need to come paired with significant improvements in services. I will not be satisfied if these changes simply bring marginal improvements for customers and higher profits for corporations.

It’s good to hear that the city isn’t planning to basically hand over publicly owned land and infuriate residents without assurance that better broadband services will follow.

There are still other questions, though, that Murray’s office should address as it pursues these rules changes.

For instance, what can be done to encourage companies like CenturyLink to put their equipment on power poles or underground? The debate is being framed as “surface cabinets or else” but there are alternatives. Under the current rules favoring undergound cabinets, broadband speeds have expanded dramatically in some areas of the city.

Murray said the city’s current rules make it “nearly impossible” for Internet providers to expand existing services, but last year Comcast managed to double its speeds in the region. Nor did the rules prevent local broadband provider Spectrum Networks from extending its ultrafast service to 15,000 homes in the city between 2008 and 2013.

Another consideration is whether CenturyLink will improve its network regardless of any rule changes. The company has dithered for years on broadband in Seattle. But now it’s rolling out profitable new digital video services that require faster broadband, so it has an incentive to increase speeds one way or the other. Recurring revenue from new cable-TV type offerings will more than offset the one-time, higher installation cost it now faces in Seattle.

If Seattle  allows large metal boxes to be permanently installed on parking strips, perhaps it should also reconsider its persnickety rule prohibiting on-street parking for more than 72 hours. That rule is in place because residents think it’s unpleasant to have a big metal box planted in front of your house.

As it floats rules favoring the big telecom companies, Murray’s office could also tone down the rhetoric about Seattle facing a broadband crisis. Yes, some areas of the city are underserved and the dominant provider, Comcast, is expensive and widely disliked. Everybody wants cheaper and faster service, but they get shafted every month by those same telecom companies.

Perhaps the city should also make clear the distinction between consumer and commercial broadband. Local companies and the University of Washington have superb access to the Internet. Over the last decade pretty much every major tech company in the country has come to Seattle and set up an engineering office that collaborates with headquarters over broadband.

We’re not South Korea and we need more broadband competition to improve service and lower prices.

But on average Washington has relatively good broadband availability, especially in the Seattle area, according to the state broadband mapping project that Murray backed in the Legislature in 2009.

Washington state ranks 22nd nationally for basic broadband access, with speeds of 3 megabits per second or better available to 98.9 percent of the population. But when it comes to the availability of hyperfast speeds — of 100 Mbps or better — the state ranks fourth and is “well ahead of California,” according to a January report by the state broadband program. Those speeds are now available to 94 percent of Washingtonians, it said.

Within Washington state, King County has the best broadband availability, according to the survey.  It found that Seattle is virtually covered by both wired and wireline broadband, and notes the proliferation of tech companies dependent on broadband in the region.

The situation would be even better if Seattle, perhaps via City Light, offered cheap broadband to every resident of Seattle.

Hopefully, Murray won’t use that enticing vision as cover for a handout to CenturyLink that won’t change things that much.

Here’s a map from the state’s broadband survey:

broadband speeds

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