Op-Ed: Bringing Better Broadband to Seattle to Build Prosperity

By Mayor Mike McGinn

Fifteen years ago America’s internet speeds were among the fastest in the world. That infrastructure helped build a tech industry that is helping create jobs and build prosperity here in Seattle today.

But the private companies who own and operate that digital infrastructure haven’t kept up. American internet speeds and bandwidth are falling behind other countries. We continue to rely on copper wires to carry increasing amounts of data, even though those wires were originally intended to carry just voice and video. Meanwhile Australia is wiring their entire country with fiber broadband, which can provide enough capacity for data, voice, and video streaming for decades to come.

We want to keep Seattle as an attractive place for business, because we have the right talent, good quality of life, and first class infrastructure. That’s why I am working to bring better broadband service to Seattle.

When I took office I took a close look at how we could improve internet service. We started by looking at the feasibility of having the City lay fiber to the home as a public utility. Our studies indicated that the cost to the City to construct its own fiber to the home network would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Before taking such a significant step, which would require the City Council to place a measure on the ballot for voters to approve, we decided to test the private market again. We made our dark fiber available for public-private partnership opportunities where a private entity, rather than City taxpayers, would assume financial risk. If it turns out the private sector cannot get the job done, we will again pursue a municipal broad band utility.

By making available our dark fiber, we can help bring more choices and better service to neighborhoods that are centers of tech jobs get better service, as well as help neighborhoods like Beacon Hill that are underserved and only currently have one option for Internet service. Other providers have focused on other neighborhoods. That makes business sense for them, but we want to be sure all Seattle residents are benefitting from better internet service.

Our first and most viable response came from Gigabit Squared. Their plan is to connect 14 initial neighborhoods with speeds up to 1 gigabit per second for $80 a month. That’s better than plans currently available in Seattle. Gigabit Squared has also agreed to open infrastructure so other companies could compete as well, we do not want to replace one monopoly for another.

Gigabit has gotten thousands of requests from across the City for service to date, even though they have not yet begun to lay fiber. That’s a sign Seattle is ready for modern fiber broadband. Gigabit is making progress, having just signed a deal to buy conduit and other assets from Zayo that will help build out the network. Later this year Gigabit will begin to lay fiber and in 2014 will begin rolling out service to the 14 initial neighborhoods. Their ultimate goal is the same as ours: to bring better service choices to the entire city.

Some companies argue that consumers don’t need gigabit speeds. We’re challenging them to look not at the present, but to help us catch up to the rest of the world. We anticipate consumers and businesses will demand more data at faster speeds. Now is the time to start building to meet the need.

We’re already seeing what happens when cities develop that infrastructure. In Kansas City, their partnership with Google Fiber has led businesses and skilled workers to move there to access the new digital infrastructure.

In the 20th century Seattle built canals, bridges, ports, and roads to support economic growth. Our 21st century economy needs better fiber infrastructure if Seattle is to continue building prosperity and compete in the global economy. Working with private sector partners like Gigabit Squared, we believe we can build it.

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