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Seattle RFI Seeks Ideas for Providing Public Wi-Fi

City leaders want private companies to collaborate with the public sector as part of another effort to provide Internet access to all citizens.

The city of Seattle is officially inviting the private sector to bid on providing Wi-Fi to more citizens and public spaces, especially low-income areas. The hope, city officials say, is that a respondent will provide a suggestion for using new innovations, particularly 5G wireless technology, to help local government bring Internet access to the roughly 15 percent of Seattle residents who still lack it.

The city's RFI, released Jan. 30, marks the latest move in a multi-year push by Seattle to ensure broadband is available in every household. Private-sector involvement in this effort is not unprecedented, as past initiatives have been powered by grants from Google, and have relied on collaboration with telecommunications giants Comcast and CenturyLink. Ultimately this RFI is an exploratory effort, said Seattle Chief Technology Officer Michael Mattmiller, and it's aimed at soliciting fresh ideas for bolstering public Wi-Fi access, particularly in areas where residents lack connectivity. Seattle is also looking for partners to establish a smart city ecosystem, which uses multiple technologies to manage municipal information systems.

“The space is moving so fast on the smart cities front,” Mattmiller said. “Like the ways that Wi-Fi is being deployed in park benches, or even in the smart trash cans now. I’ve seen one company deploy Wi-Fi hot spots in those. There’s a lot of interesting things we’d love to learn in this process.”

The RFI specifically calls for proposals that the public and private sectors can work together on, with the city as a facilitator and potential partner. Mattmiller drew a direct connection between this request and Seattle’s ongoing push for universal connectivity, painting a picture of a household in which parents might not understand why they need Internet, but they have children whose studies require it. These children could then use Wi-Fi through a tablet or laptop. 

The deadline for RFI submissions is Feb. 28, after which proposals will be evaluated by representatives from various city departments, the mayor’s office and members of Seattle’s community technology advisory board, Mattmiller said, adding that they'll be looking “to understand the types of opportunities available to us and which ones might work best for our community.”

The largest factors under consideration are the types of opportunities available, acceptable business models, and if there are any smart city technologies to help the government become more efficient and better serve the public. The next step could be a formal RFP, or even pursuing a direct partnership with one or more respondents.

“The key part is not only working with our city stakeholders to think about what might be best," Mattmiller said, "but really working with our community to make sure we see a solution that works for them."

Tech-heavy Seattle has worked toward universal broadband connectivity for some time. The city once convinced Comcast to increase eligibility for its discounted Internet program from low-income households with children to low-income seniors as well. Other efforts involved working with Housing and Urban Development to accelerate Internet adoption for families in subsidized housing, and using $470,000 in grants to educate and train nonusers about the value of access. A $344,000 grant from Google brought Wi-Fi to low-income residents and parks and recreation centers in the city, and a separate $225,000 grant from Google bought the city hundreds of Wi-Fi hot spot devices to loan to residents through its libraries, a program so successful Seattle has since invested its own funds to expand.

Seattle, however, can’t seem to break the 85 percent barrier for residential connectivity. And as data collection begins this year for another report on the matter, Mattmiller said that, recent efforts aside, he does not expect to see a significant increase in terms of household connectivity. 

“We’re a city known for innovation and technology,” said Mayor Ed Murray in April. “… Yet too many of the residents of this city do not have sufficient access to the Internet.”

Widespread public Wi-Fi access, facilitated by public- and private-sector collaboration, seeks to narrow that gap.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.