Seattle Mayor Begins Solving City's Broadband Problems

Making sure both CenturyLink, phone companies and the cable providers play by the same set of rules will provide immediate benefit — and then the city can start thinking about long-term solutions.

by Robert Kangas, Upping Technology for Underserved Neighbors / April 1, 2014
Mayoral candidate state Sen. Ed Murray smiles during a news conference Monday, Nov. 4, 2013, in Seattle. Washington's voters on Tuesday will decide whether to put labels on genetically modified foods, people in SeaTac are being asked whether to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour for many workers and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn faces a strong challenge in his bid for a second term from Murray. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) AP

On March 30, The Seattle Times posted an opinion piece about changing broadband rules for equipment placement in the Emerald City — and it completely missed the mark.

In the piece, columnist Brier Dudley calls out Seattle Mayor Ed Murray's decision to "grant a longstanding wish of CenturyLink and make it easier for the company to place refrigerator-like utility cabinets on the parking strips in front of people’s homes," questioning whether the move will improve broadband speeds. He also argued that it may "pit the phone company against neighborhoods" and could "create a controversy that slows down Murray’s more ambitious technology vision — to revive plans for a citywide, city-owned broadband network that would offer an alternative to CenturyLink, Comcast and other entrenched providers."

From where I sit, I see this: Seattle residents are falling further and further behind the broadband curve. People are increasingly having issues working from home, streaming TV and movies, gaming online, and uploading content. It's important that we do something to fix the short-term problem of poor broadband service in areas like Beacon Hill and the Central District today, while beginning work on the long-term problem of a more comprehensive solution.

Murray’s rule fix addresses the immediate short term needs — and we assume there are also longer-range plans in the works as well.

The mayor begins to solve some problems that have existed for more than five years, when CenturyLink used to be Qwest. While Murray’s actions are not the long-term solution, like a city-wide municipal fiber network or working with private providers, it does something that no other approach has done: take a measurable, positive step toward progress on faster broadband. 

As for Dudley's suggestion that this change will pit CenturyLink against the neighborhoods? There is nothing further from the truth. 

For more than four years, Upping Technology for Underserved Neighbors (UPTUN) has been advocating for faster, more affordable broadband for Seattle residents — particularly in neighborhoods such as Beacon Hill, Central District and Georgetown. We are supported by the North Beacon Hill Council and many community members from Beacon Hill, Georgetown, the Central District, Magnolia, Leschi, West Seattle, Capitol Hill, the University District, Ballard, Fremont, etc.  We are asking for these changes.

Last year, UPTUN rallied more than 120 people in underserved neighborhoods to sign a letter of support urging the city to do something about our broadband problem. The Citizens Telecommunications and Technology Advisory Board (CTTAB), which advises the mayor and the City Council, also followed suit and sent a letter urging the Department of Transportation to put in some changes quickly.

UPTUN asked for these changes not to benefit any provider or host a "giveaway," but to level the playing field so people get a better choice of competitive providers. Right now, cable providers like Comcast or Wave have commanding market shares of the broadband market in Seattle. The problem is that the cable providers don’t actually compete with each other because they are blocked off in separate franchise areas — a system set up by the city. This move is a step in the right direction so that CenturyLink and phone companies can compete effectively on that level playing field.

To be fair, the Murray administration is trying to change that. With any municipal broadband solution being years off (it is both frustrating and difficult to get any major infrastructure project started in the city), we need a solution now. Leveling the playing field by making sure both CenturyLink and the cable providers play by the same set of rules will provide immediate benefit — and then we can start thinking about long-term solutions.