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

August 5, 2014 at 2:05 PM

CenturyLink giving parts of Seattle ultrafast broadband, finally

CenturyLink is finally offering ultrafast broadband service to some Seattle neighborhoods but only pockets of the city will be served as the project rolls out over the next year.

The company today said it’s upgrading its network to “gigabit” speeds – with downloads up to 1,000 megabits per second - in parts of Ballard, Beacon Hill, West Seattle and the Central District. Its local manager would not say whether additional neighborhoods will get the fast service anytime soon.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray heralded the news as proof that the city’s broadband plans are working, although the speed increases are part of a national broadband upgrade that CenturyLink has been working on for some time. Murray’s also planning to give CenturyLink a break on controversial land-use rules in return for the promised upgrade.

Murray said the upgrade will make Seattle’s broadband market more competitive and provide new options to some neighborhoods.

“It was important to me particularly (that) Beacon Hill and the Central District were included,” he said. “There are real challenges with services there, particulary with Beacon Hill.”

CenturyLink is mostly responding to competition from other, faster broadband providers such as Comcast and Google. Last year it began rolling out gigabit speeds to parts of Omaha, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. Today, it announced the rollout of gigabit service in 13 more cities, including Seattle and Portland.

Gigabit speeds aren’t new to Seattle but options are limited. A local company, CondoInternet, provides gigabit service for $80 per month to apartments and condos from Ballard to West Seattle and east to Bellevue. Co-founder John van Oppen said it will fare well in the competition because “people just hate the phone company.”

“If the phone company won’t change from being the phone company and (playing) bundling games and fee games that makes it hard for people to get excited,” he said.

CenturyLink will charge $110 per month for gigabit service for the first year, or $80 if bundled with a voice plan, DirectTV service or a Verizon wireless plan. There’s also a $60 installation fee, a $20 activation fee and a $7 per month modem fee. After the first year the standalone rate jumps to $152, which will limit its appeal and uptake.

For low-income customers, CenturyLink will offer a 40 megabit per second service priced at $10 per month for the first year and $15 per month afterward.

(Those customers should read their bills carefully. While Murray was cheering CenturyLink’s service in Seattle, state regulators in Olympia fined CenturyLink $31,000 for billing errors, including improper billing of low-income phone customers.)

CenturyLink expects to have its gigabit service available to “tens of thousands” of residences and business customers in Seattle by the end of 2015. The city has around 310,000 residential units and around 58,000 licensed businesses. Customers can enter their address at www.centurylink.com/fiber to see if the fast service is available.

The Monroe, La.-based company is not using the public fiber-optic network that Seattle has offered to other providers but it is seeking city assistance.

CenturyLink has been a major donor to Murray and shortly after becoming mayor he agreed to consider one of the company’s biggest wishes – a rule change making it cheaper and easier for the company to locate metal utility cabinets in front of houses, on residential parking strips.

Current rules favor the wishes of residents, by requiring a majority of them to agree to cabinet placement in a neighborhood.

The cabinets aren’t mandatory but they are the cheapest option for telecom companies upgrading their service. Other options include underground vaults and boxes that hang on power poles.

CenturyLink held back on announcing gigabit speeds in Seattle while the mayor looked into eliminating the cabinet-siting rules.  Murray is now finalizing the change and will ask the City Council later this week for final approval. At City Hall, it’s referred to as a “director’s rule” because it’s administered by the transportation director.

Apparently CenturyLink didn’t need the rule change to start offering gigabit speeds. The first phase of the upgrade is being done using pole-mounted utility boxes, not cabinets on parking strips.

“The interesting thing about this is our initial deployment is very heavy aerially,” CenturyLink’s general manager in Seattle, Sue Anderson.

She added that “we do need the city to assist us in areas where we don’t have a good aerial deployment and we do have to go to an above-ground deployment.”

But with or without the rule change, CenturyLink is rolling out gigabit speeds. It actually began offering gigabit service several months ago to businesses, condos and apartment buildings in downtown Seattle.

“If the city does not approve the director’s rule change we will have to continue to work within the boundaries and conditions we have it will at some point slow future development within the city of Seattle,” she said.

Murray said he agreed to the rule change after CenturyLink committed to improving service in areas that traditionally have had poor broadband options.

The rule change will apply citywide, though. Murray said the city will expect CenturyLink to provide gigabit speeds in areas where it puts above-ground cabinets in front of homes.

“We’re simply lifting the rule,” he said. “If they want to build out in the city they’re going to have to agree to provide gigabit service in exchange for it.”

This quid pro quo is not codified anywhere. But “the city has lots of permitting and regulatory authority to manage these situations,” Murray said.

Whether the majority of Seattle residents ever get gigabit service remains an open question. CenturyLink’s landline phone service must reach everyone in its service area under federal rules, broadband is exempt from these “universal service” requirements.

Anderson would not say whether CenturyLink will ever expand gigabit service to the rest of its customers in Seattle.

“We will continue to look at further investment in the city of Seattle,” she said.

Nor would she provide a timetable for offering gigabit service to customers in surrounding communities. In the greater Seattle area, CenturyLink service extends from Shoreline to Tacoma and through parts of the Eastside extending to Snoqualmie Pass.

In Seattle, Murray said he’ll continue pursuing other broadband offerings such as additional providers and perhaps a public-private partnership using parts of the government broadband network to build residential service.

Won’t CenturyLink’s upgrade make the Seattle market less appealing to new broadband providers?

“My hope is that it actually makes it more attractive by creating competition,” Murray said.

Comments | Topics: broadband, centurylink, condointernet

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