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In pandemic’s Zoom era, Seattle takes another look at municipal broadband

From King County’s 2020 Broadband Access Study — the full study is embedded below

Devin Glaser’s goddaughter misses him.

Before all of this, Glaser could have popped over to visit her, but now they have to set up a Zoom video conference.

“I can’t imagine trying to predict the world where that’s the only way you can connect with your family,” he said.

Glaser, an activist with municipal broadband advocacy organization Upgrade Seattle, says the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced people to work remotely and students to learn online has only exacerbated the city’s need for a public, high-speed Internet system.

“It’s very obvious that Internet is all the more essential than it already was, and it was already essential,” Glaser said. He said that when his Internet goes out at night, he just goes to bed because there’s nothing else to do.

Meanwhile, after months of COVID-19 restrictions, the Seattle City Council conducts its public business online these days including massive conference calls that invite every citizen in Seattle to log in for public comment.

With that in mind, the council’s Alex Pedersen introduced a resolution requesting the city implement an action plan to provide affordable and high-speed Internet access to all in mid-May.

It might say a little about the city’s hopes for municipal high speed internet — and the power of the COVID-19 crisis and the past months of important Black Lives Matter protest — that the City Council is finally set to approve the resolution in late July.

“In a city that prides itself in leading the world in technology, the COVID crisis has laid bare the inequities and injustice of the Digital Divide,” Pedersen, who chairs the council’s Transportation and Utilities Committee that includes Seattle’s Information Technology department, said in May. “We can no longer allow limited internet access to prevent learning, to impede our workers, or to hinder our small businesses and nonprofits. It’s time to ensure reliable and affordable access to the internet as part of our city’s vital infrastructure for social justice, for education, and for economic development. It’s time for Internet for All.”

Pedersen declined to comment for this article.

While Internet access has improved this decade in Seattle, a 2018 study found that low-income populations are five times more likely not to have Internet access and residents of color are 1.6 times more likely.

The movement to make broadband a city-owned utility here along the lines of electricity with Seattle City Light dates back to at least 1995, when the city council passed an ordinance to invest in building fiber cables. Since then, the city has successfully built 550 miles of publicly-owned infrastructure.

In 2015, the City of Seattle released its latest feasibility study — one of many over the past decade or so — that said in today’s Internet landscape, investment in a broadband network was both feasible and may meet the City’s “long-term strategic vision of ubiquitous access and competition.” It recommended a future broadband utility.

The study said that a city-run utility would break even once 43% of single-family homes signed up for the program. Other cities, like Chattanooga, Tennessee, have already implemented municipal broadband and enrolled more than half of their residents.

The resolution calls on the city council to commit to universal and affordable Internet access and would require the Information Technology Department to report to Pedersen’s committee in mid-September.

This report would include an action plan outlining how Seattle can quickly implement universal Internet access and an analysis on gaps in access in the city.

The action plan will address possible partnerships with the business community and others, the infrastructure that would need to be built, and how much it would cost.

Part of the delay for the resolution’s adoption were the COVID-19 restrictions in place stopping local governments from addressing legislation not directly related to the pandemic. With that issue now cleared, the resolution comes up for a vote by the full council Monday afternoon.

An updated version of the resolution up for adoption includes findings from the 2020 Broadband Access Study released this month by King County. The study “found a correlation between lack of income and lack of internet access and, while 96 percent of county residents report accessing the internet from their households, only 80 percent of low-income households,” the updated proposal (PDF) reads.

Glaser said at the time of its introduction that Pedersen’s resolution caught him “out of left field,” as Upgrade Seattle was in dialogue with other council members, but said it made sense given his committee position.

However, he is nervous about whether this will lead to substantive action or just be a resolution that doesn’t lead to a broadband network that could also serve as a major jobs program to help the city recover from the pandemic.

“Anything without actual action gets you nowhere, so I want to make sure we move there,” Glaser said. “And that has to be leadership from the council and then also leadership from the executive.”

That being said, he still sees it less of a question of if, but a question of when.

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7 thoughts on “In pandemic’s Zoom era, Seattle takes another look at municipal broadband

  1. A simple place to start would be to allow anyone who is low income to sign up for Comcast $9 plan without disconnecting their service for 90 days. Why should that be a requirement ? I’m guessing to make it hard for people to apply….

  2. It’s really beyond time that the city implement a system that is akin to that in Tacoma, which, if people are unaware, as city-owned broadband.

    It’s a utility, we shouldn’t be limited to the functional monopoly of Comcast and CenturyLink.

    The decision to not pursue this made by previous city administrations–and decision that was dripping with corruption–looks worse by the day.

    Time. To. Get. Moving. On. This. Seattle.

  3. Too long in coming. CenturyLink will unjustifiably be raising their internet rates this coming month at a time when service is more critical than ever, especially the poor. This may knock a lot of people offline. Options in town are so pathetic.

  4. Did the study on lack of internet access include phones? T-Mobile is giving away 10mm lines of service free to kids as part of the agreement with the government on their purchase of Sprint. Would it be cheaper / more effective to subsidize wireless access for those who need it rather than building and operating a network?

  5. Any time this city says they’re going to do municipal broadband, it’s because they’re trying to muscle a telecom/cable contract. Don’t get your hopes up.

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