For the citizens of Seattle, the dream of ubiquitous high-speed Internet has died what many hope will be a temporary death.
Demand for high-speed Internet is growing everywhere, and Seattle is no exception. But the city’s deal with Gigabit Squared fell apart and one of the company’s founders has stepped down, leaving the city with $52,000 of the company’s debt.
Meanwhile, remaining telecoms struggle to provide service to the city thanks to a seemingly arbitrary right-of-way rule. As far as broadband Internet is concerned, Seattle, home of tech giants Amazon and Microsoft, isn’t living up to its reputation as one of the nation’s most innovative tech centers.
But what happened with the seemingly great partnership between the city of Seattle, the University of Washington and Gigabit Squared? For some, the fact that the deal went south was not surprising.
In December 2012, a partnership that would bring gigabit speeds to all residents was announced. The partnership was with a new company, Gigabit Squared, that had a slick website with professional-looking graphics, and reported the following April that it had met at least 10 percent of its funding goal. No longer, it appeared, would Seattle be relegated to middle-of-the-road connectivity speeds.
The city was doing what it could to help the company thrive so that the dream of affordable, super high-speed ubiquitous Internet could come true. In 2012, city officials told Government Technology how Gigabit Squared was going to transform the city’s digital infrastructure.
But that’s not how things went, and some people, like Robert Kangas, leader of Upping Technology for Underserved Neighborhoods (UPTUN), a technology advocacy group in Seattle, were not surprised when things went wrong.
The city of Seattle means well, Kangas said, but it doesn't always do what’s best for broadband adoption in the city. Some of its rules are holding back build-outs that could have already been finished months ago, he said, adding that Gigabit Squared was not a wise investment.
“I think they actually realize that there is a real demand for this stuff,” he said. “This is why they tried to pursue Gigabit Squared, even though my personal opinion is that it was pretty misguided of them to do so.”
At a presentation early in Giabit Squared’s career, the company invited the Seattle public to ask questions about the project. But Kangas, who was in attendance that day, said the presentation was a spectacle not unlike the classic episode of The Simpsons in which a fast-talking out-of-town swindler sold the town on the idea of a Monorail, which eventually bankrupted the city before the machine literally crashed to the ground.
“Our group asked questions like, ‘What’s your equipment going to look like?’ or, ‘Where is this stuff going to be placed in our neighborhoods?’ and the guy that they sent out was totally a salesperson,” Kangas said. “He couldn’t answer any technical questions.”
Like this story? If so, subscribe to Government Technology's daily newsletter.
Kangas’ group, UPTUN, researched Gigabit Squared and could not find any information that supported the idea that they might be able to pull off what they were proposing. “We were very concerned that at that point in time, they had had no track in record in delivering anything, anywhere, frankly,” he said. “I think they probably had more sales expertise and venture capital expertise than they actually did technical expertise.”
Gigabit Squared was a lesson that the city had to learn the hard way. Gigabit Squared left the city holding about $52,000 of its debt, and it doesn’t look like a new broadband network will be coming from them anytime soon.
Gigabit Squared responded to an initial email from Government Technology, but then declined to comment, as did Seattle Chief Technology Officer Erin Devoto. But in March of 2013, Devoto told Government Technology that through the project with Gigabit Squared, she believed fiber to the home could in the coming years become the new norm for the city.
The broadband problem in Seattle, though, is much bigger than making a bad bet. The city went all-in with Gigabit Squared, forging new partnerships and granting the company access to its unused or “dark” fiber network that would have facilitated connectivity in some parts of the city. But there were already Internet companies before Gigabit Squared, or at least one company, in the city that had the means and desire to expand broadband for residents. CenturyLink has been asking the city for the last two years for permission to expand its fiber network in the city, but the city has a right-of-way rule that has made it practically impossible for them to do so.
The rule in question, called Director’s Rule 2-2009, was presumed to be established by the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) to prevent urban clutter (SDOT declined to comment on this story). Director’s Rule 2-2009 requires any organization building in the public right-of-way to get permission from the public before construction can begin, which sounds reasonable enough. CenturyLink tried to get permission from the public -- a public that supposedly wants Internet -- but repeatedly failed.
Getting permission from the public to build is not only very time consuming, but also turns out to be impossible in most cases, said Sue Anderson, CenturyLink vice president for the Puget Sound region. Getting permission is a two-step process. Step one is to get permission from the property owner whose property is “abutted” with where the fiber box would be built. Locating this person can be difficult, Anderson said, because property owners are sometimes out of state or even out of country, and the role of granting permission cannot legally be relegated to someone like an on-site property manager.
Once step one is fulfilled, step two is to get permission from at least 60 percent of the abutted property owners' neighbors who live within 100 feet. In a city like Seattle, this can mean contacting dozens of property owners, who may or may not be available or willing to cooperate. Neighbors who do not sign off on the construction are automatically counted as being against the construction, so a few neighbors who are indifferent or unavailable to sign authorization documents can block an entire neighborhood from getting high-speed Internet, Anderson said.
“We’ve had to cancel over 60 projects that could have served over 21,000 households because we were either not able to get the abutting signature or the 60 percent signature,” Anderson said. CenturyLink asked SDOT if it could change the rule, which the agency has the power to do without legislative approval, but SDOT told CenturyLink that it prefers to defer to the legislative process --meaning CenturyLink and other telecoms will remain blocked from building out their networks until a new law is passed that may change the right-of-way construction rules.
Now that the city’s chosen company is out of the picture, legislative change may be forthcoming in the next few months. Some have speculated that the rule was kept in place by the city to stifle competition from the likes of CenturyLink.
“If you put some of the timelines together and the mayoral election, it’s kind of interesting timing,” Anderson said. Former Mayor Michael McGinn stated more than once in interviews that he opposed removal of the rule because he didn’t like the appearance of the large utility boxes. Recently elected Mayor Ed Murray, however, received campaign contributions from Comcast, which has led others to maintain that the rule will stand.
A legitimate reason for why the city does not permit telecoms to build out their networks in the public right-of-way is hard to find, Kangas said, adding that SDOT says the public doesn’t want the boxes because people think they’re ugly. “But every attempt I’ve made to get information out of them to quantify that, they haven’t really provided,” Kangas said.
Comcast and Wave Broadband, meanwhile, are allowed to build without adherence to Director’s Rule 2-2009, because they are technically not classified as telecoms, but cable companies.
SDOT has, on multiple occasions, proposed that CenturyLink simply build its infrastructure underground, like it did in the Magnolia region of Seattle -- which would create a much larger footprint than CenturyLink's proposed above-ground infrastructure and could cost as much as 20 times more.
Another reason not to build the infrastructure underground? As Kangas was touring some of CenturyLink’s facilities in Magnolia, "we were getting out of the car to check out one of these underground vaults, [and] a resident came up and said, ‘Hey, when are you finally going to offer high speed Internet in our neighborhood?’” Kangas recalled. “So the city claims that they offer it in Magnolia, but they really don’t.”
The first thing that needs to happen, Kangan suggests, is loosening the rules for building in the public right-of-way. As it stands, the rule does not create an environment where the people have a say in what’s built in their neighborhood; it’s a roadblock disguised as democracy. Kangas said he canvassed his own neighborhood and fell short of the 60 percent mark by a few percentage points because “some people we could just never get to respond no matter how many times we went back,” he said, adding that a few people who either didn’t know, didn’t understand, or didn’t care about high-speed Internet prevented thousands of people from getting access.
“On top of that, yes, we want the city to have a longer-term strategy on how to improve connectivity throughout the city,” he said. “We’ve waited years now. We just need them to really jump-start the process, then we can start taking iterative updates to what the strategy should be long-term.”
Some fiber projects, like a nationwide project in Australia and one in Provo, Utah, before Google took over, failed because while there may be demand for faster Internet, the economics sometimes aren’t there for gigabit speeds, Kangas said, especially with fiber to the home projects. With today’s current technology and digital media standards, actually using an entire gigabit pipe isn’t something most people are going to do. Streaming video in the living room and browsing the Internet in a couple other rooms doesn’t take a household even close to using all their gigabit bandwidth.
Building out fiber optic nodes to neighborhoods would be a great intermediary step, Kangas said, and would provide infrastructure to neighborhoods so that companies can someday roll out that fiber directly to people’s homes, when that demand arrives.
Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.