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Brier Dudley's blog

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

November 12, 2014 at 6:00 AM

Wave begins gigabit broadband rollout in Seattle

All of a sudden, a whole neighborhood in Seattle is getting the sort of ultrafast broadband service that the city has craved for years.

Every home in the Eastlake neighborhood — even houseboats bobbing in Lake Union — will be able to get fiber-optic broadband with speeds up to 1 gigabit per second at low, fixed rates from a service that’s launching in December.

No, Google Fiber is not coming to town. Nor is this the result of City Hall’s recent kowtowing to CenturyLink.

Gigabit broadband is coming to Eastlake — and soon to other neighborhoods around Seattle and the Eastside — because the low-profile Kirkland-based Wave Broadband has figured out how to provide top-flight service at a relatively low price.

CondoInternet, a subsidiary of Wave, will offer gigabit-speed broadband in Eastlake for a flat rate of $80 per month, or 100 megabit per second service for $60 per month, with no contract, equipment or service bundle requirements.

Eastlake is a trial rollout for a fiber-optic service referred to as fiber-to-the-home. The company hopes to extend the service to other neighborhoods in Seattle and other communities around Puget Sound. Construction has been under way for months in Eastlake, where the service will begin in December, starting with the south end of the neighborhood and working north toward the University Bridge.

This should accelerate Seattle’s decade-long quest for better broadband.

Mayor after mayor has wrung hands, called for studies and made political hay out of the need for ultrafast broadband. This intensified in 2010 when Google announced plans to experiment with gigabit broadband in a few cities, and Seattle joined a national stampede of municipalities begging for Google Fiber.

Google chose to start in Kansas City and hasn’t shown much interest in wiring Seattle. Mayor Mike McGinn, who promised fast broadband for all when he first ran for office, scaled back the plan and cut a deal with a startup called Gigabit Squared in 2012, hoping to add fast service in several neighborhoods. But it didn’t have financing and the project fizzled out.

Meanwhile, CondoInternet was steadily wiring up condos and apartments in Seattle with ultrafast service, starting in 2008. It’s now reaching about 20,000 residents, 75 percent of whom have gigabit speeds available.

CondoInternet was acquired last year by Wave, which lined up $1 billion for its broadband expansion in 2012 and now has about 1,000 employees.

The Eastlake project marks CondoInternet’s expansion to single-family homes and the start of a broader challenge to Comcast, CenturyLink and others.

Whether or not CondoInternet leapfrogs the entrenched providers, it will pressure them to provide better services and prices. It also comes as consumers are increasingly looking to Internet-delivered content as an alternative to traditional cable plans and broadband policies are becoming a national focus.

“Our goal would be to have a large offering of fiber to the home in the next few years. The question is where can we build it most efficiently and economically,” said John van Oppen, senior vice president of CondoInternet and Wave.

Instead of digging trenches and installing big cabinets in neighborhoods, CondoInternet is building an aerial service along power poles. Homes wanting the service will be connected via a wire, similar to a phone or cable TV line.

In Eastlake, this will enable the company to reach all of the roughly 2,400 homes in an area bounded by Galer Street to the south and University Bridge to the north. The area was chosen for the trial because it’s dense and includes a mix of housing types, including single-family homes, apartments, duplexes and houseboats.

CenturyLink began upgrading its Seattle network in August to provide gigabit service. That came after City Hall agreed to change land-use rules at the company’s behest, making it easier to install utility cabinets in front of homes. Other options include putting the equipment underground or mounting it on poles, but above-ground cabinets are the cheapest way to proceed.

After the rule change was introduced by Mayor Ed Murray, a past recipient of CenturyLink campaign donations, the company started upgrading its network in Ballard. Gigabit service is now available to some homes there, but a spokeswoman wouldn’t say how many have access or have signed up.

CenturyLink hopes to have its gigabit service available to “tens of thousands” of Seattle homes in 2015, spokeswoman Meg Andrews said.

The company charges $152 per month for standalone gigabit broadband service, after promotions.

Comcast has started rolling out gigabit service cities where it’s facing new competition, but it hasn’t yet announced such plans for Seattle.

Comcast may have anticipated the CondoInternet challenge, though. Last week it announced that it was doubling the speed of its broadband in the region, up to a top speed of 150 Mbps.

After promotions, Comcast’s standalone, 150 Mbps “Extreme” tier costs $115 per month. Its 105 Mbps service costs $78 per month and its 50 Mbps service costs $67 per month.

The city of Seattle is still mulling whether to enter the market directly with a municipal broadband service, similar to what cities such as Tacoma and Chattanooga, Tenn., have done. It’s working with consultants to update a previous study of the issue and may have a new version done in April.

“We are looking at whether the city should be a retail provider by itself,” said Michael Mattmiller, the city’s chief technology officer.

Mattmiller said CondoInternet’s move will be a consideration for the city, but the broader goal is to make sure everyone in the city has access.

“If providers are stepping up to provide that service, it does change the need of the city to step up and provide that service,” he said.

Either way, a new entrant “has some very positive benefits for consumers and businesses” and will reduce costs and probably push incumbents to provide faster service, he said.

CondoInternet is not using the public network assets that Seattle previously offered up to broadband providers. It is working with cities on construction permits and pole access but doesn’t need franchise agreements since it’s not providing cable TV service.

Van Oppen wouldn’t say where CondoInternet’s residential service will go next, but the expansion will come first to areas where it has infrastructure serving business customers. Those areas include Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond and neighborhoods around Seattle. The company is inviting residents of the Puget Sound region to register their interest in the service, at CondoInternet.com/fiber.

Within a few years, residential gigabit service could be “virtually anywhere where we have business customers,” he said.

The ultimate goal is to upgrade Wave’s entire network along the West Coast, including the former Broadstripe cable service area in Seattle, to provide gigabit-speed broadband, he said.

“Our long-term plan is definitely around gigabit to as many users as we can do it,” van Oppen said, “over whatever technology can do that.”

Comments | Topics: broadband, centurylink, Comcast


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