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Mayor McGinn's Broadband Dreams Slow To Materialize

When Mike McGinn ran for mayor in 2009, he campaigned on the promise of high-speed internet for all of Seattle. But once elected, he struggled to implement anything close to that. Four years later McGinn still presides over a city of internet haves and have-nots.

The Haves

As John van Oppen clicks through the New York Times website from his Belltown office, the pages pop up instantaneously. That’s as it should be, he said. “Nothing takes more than a half a second to render the whole page,” he said.

Van Oppen is the founder of CondoInternet, a fiber-optic internet provider that serves condo and apartment buildings in downtown Seattle.The firm offers packages with internet speeds 50 to 100 times faster than typical homes receive via cable or DSL. Van Oppen said it’s addictive. “I have a fair number of friends who live in buildings we service who would only move to other buildings we service," he said. These people often work at Google and other tech companies and he said they want the service they have at their office at home.

The Have-Nots

Those customers could be considered the internet “haves” of Seattle, but it’s only four miles to Beacon Hill – a land of the “have nots.” David Showalter is one of those; and not for lack of a tech-savvy job. He works for Boeing making things function in the computer world between the company and its global business partners. Showalter said Boeing is happy to let him work from home and so is he – except when his internet service conks out.

“If the speed that day isn’t up to what I need to do a job, I need to talk them through it or I need to get in the car and drive to a location that allows me to do the work I need,” he said.

If that happens, he heads to his office in Bellevue, where he gets better service. Showalter pays for internet service from both his local providers: Centurylink and the cable company Wave. Comcast isn’t available there.

McGinn's Learning Curve

So what happened to McGinn’s pledge for widespread broadband service? Even before McGinn was running for office, the city’s Technology Advisory Board issued report after report on the need to improve internet service in Seattle.

Bill Schrier is Seattle's former chief technology officer under Mayor Greg Nickels and then under McGinn. He said the reports “recommended that the city’s goal should be a fiber- to-the-premise network: a fiber-optic cable to every home and business in Seattle.” The reports were clear on the economic benefits of broadband, but not on how to provide it.

Some local governments created their own broadband utilities. They provide some of the fastest, cheapest internet service in the country. In Washington, the Grant County Public Utility District is one example. But Schrier said the financial results for those utilities have been “a mixed bag” and it wasn’t something he advocated. Mayor McGinn said when he was elected he liked the concept of a municipal broadband utility. But he soon concluded that Seattle couldn’t afford it.

“What we found was that was somewhere in the $700 million dollar capital lift would have been required for us to build out the infrastructure,” McGinn said. “And then we would have had to go borrow that.”

Finding A Private Sector Partner

So in 2012, McGinn sought a change in city law that would allow private internet companies to harness the city’s existing 500 miles of fiber-optic cable, and make the physical connections to homes and businesses. He said he’s happy with what he accomplished in his first term. “I’m very excited about where we are with broadband, because a lot of cities have tried to crack this problem of how do we get fiber-optic cable,” he said. “The incumbent internet providers are not upgrading their networks at the pace and speed that users would like to see.”

The city took proposals, then announced a partnership with Gigabit Squared, an economic development corporation. The firm is currently negotiating a contract with the city to bring broadband to businesses and residents in 14 neighborhoods. One of the first will be Seattle’s University District.

As company president Mark Ansboury strolled through the U District, he pointed out manhole covers that say “fiber optic” on them. His firm hopes to extend those lines to nearby businesses and apartment buildings. Ansboury said the UW is one of the partners in the project, and the university made this neighborhood a high priority.

“A lot of students and professors live in the area. And they go away from the campus and go home and they can’t get access to the same level of services,” he said.

Free Internet For Five Years

Ansboury said Gigabit Squared will soon roll out a formal signup process for customers. It will involve a deposit, although he doesn’t yet want to say how much. The big priority for Gigabit Squared is to get a critical mass of households on board to make their effort financially viable. Their cheapest plan offers basic internet service free for five years, provided someone pays the $350 installation fee.

Ansboury said it’s meant to get people in the door. “If they pay for the cost of getting the infrastructure there and they start using the network and they’re happy and the price is right, we feel they might start taking advantage of other services.”

Ansboury is not only in contract negotiations with the city right now, he’s also seeking investors. “Our goal right now is $20 million,” he said. “We’re part way there and we’ll most likely finish that off within two months and wrap that up.”

Gigabit's vice president for engineering, Armando Stettner, recently moved to Seattle and Ansboury said the central office will have over 20 employees by this fall. The company is currently looking for office space and storefronts in Seattle.

Centurylink Cancelled Seattle Updates

But back on Beacon Hill, Showalter said Gigabit’s near-term plans do not include his street. “Now they’re talking a lot about Gigabit, which is good and I support that. The problem is it’s not going to come anywhere near my neighborhood for many years so that’s not a solution in the near term,” he said. “So while I still support that, I think people should have some options.”

For Showalter, those options should also include better service from one of Seattle’s longtime internet providers: Centurylink. Centurylink officials would like that too, but say the notorious Seattle “process” has stymied it. Seattle requires the approval of locals before structures can be placed on public rights of way. Centurylink has canceled dozens of upgrades in Seattle because the property owners couldn’t be reached to meet that rule. As a result, Centurylink said it can’t offer the internet speeds in Seattle that it provides in Denver, Minneapolis or Phoenix.

That could change under a pilot project that would make it easier for Centurylink to make those upgrades.

"Broadband For All"

So what’s the prognosis for broadband in all of Seattle? Most residents will continue to have choice only between the slower speeds offered by Comcast and CenturyLink. Brier Dudley covers technology for The Seattle Times. He said McGinn’s pledge was not backed up by any bold moves. “That was McGinn’s promise when he ran for election was, ‘broadband for all,’” he said. “And that’s not at all what we’re getting. We’re getting broadband for a very very teeny sliver of Seattle.”

Dudley said utilities were forced to provide service to every resident in the US because lights and telephone service were seen as essential services. While many people now see internet service as equally vital, internet providers don’t want those stringent requirements. Dudley’s worried that Seattle’s deal could allow private-sector partners to cherry-pick the most lucrative customers or neighborhoods, and exclude those harder to serve. “So if you’re way out in the far corners of the city, this probably isn’t going to touch you because Seattle gave up on that plan,” he said.

Still, CondoInternet’s van Oppen said McGinn has been an important champion of broadband. And at least some parts of Seattle are getting a little more competitive. CondoInternet is expanding into other high-density neighborhoods like Ballard and plans to cut prices for its fastest service. In March, Comcast announced plans to increase internet speeds and reduce its rates. Gigabit Squared hopes to start hooking up subscribers by spring 2014. And if David Showalter gets his way, Centurylink will be able to upgrade its service on Beacon Hill.

So maybe the maddening little circle that appears while your video stream is buffering will appear a little more rarely in the Seattle of the future.

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