Christopher Mitchell spoke to a room of about 50 about the possibilities of Seattle’s very own municipally-owned broadband network at City Hall on Wednesday, October 9. • Photo by Atoosa Moinzadeh
Christopher Mitchell spoke to a room of about 50 about the possibilities of Seattle’s very own municipally-owned broadband network at City Hall on Wednesday, October 9. • Photo by Atoosa Moinzadeh

In a city where Wave Broadband, Comcast, and CenturyLink are the only Internet options, Seattle needs some major changes in order for broadband to become more accessible to the public, according to Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.

So far, Murray has a three-point broadband plan, which aims to reduce regulatory barriers, explore public and private partnerships, and explore municipal broadband.

In light of these changes, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative director Chris Mitchell spoke at a Seattle City Hall forum about what our city can do moving forward, and how other cities have succeeded and failed in the process.

“The existing providers in most U.S. cities aren’t getting the job done,” Mitchell said at the forum Wednesday. “We need better options, and we need faster connections. Eighty percent of Americans have one choice or no choices for an Internet connection of 25 megabits per second or more—this is the kind of connection considered to be the bare minimum for our homes and businesses.”

According to Mitchell, cities don’t have much weight in asking companies to provide better, but they have the option of building their own networks, or finding a solution rooted in the community. Building and maintaining a city-owned municipal network—which is the approach that both Murray and former Mayor Mike McGinn seemed to support—would cost the city up to $500 million.

“Some cities have built incrementally with low debt or no debt, and that works in cities significantly smaller than Seattle,” Mitchell said. “The key points are that early experiments have resulted in a lot of challenges and a lot of lessons learned, and there are a lot of approaches that do work.”

Because of access to capital to build new infrastructure and sway to make something happen, Seattle has been focusing on a municipal network—or broadband Internet access provided either fully or partially by local governments.

“Seattle has a lot of things going for it, it’s a vibrant tech center, but cities with better networks are trying to take your businesses away,” Mitchell said.

So why is this new infrastructure important, and why is it worth it?

In Seattle, race, income, age, and ability correlate with who has access to technology. According to the 2014 “City of Seattle Technology Access & Adoption Report,” “those with more than one Internet device tend to be younger, male, and have more income.” Job creation through a city-owned municipal network is another bonus to increasing access and narrowing that gap.

“So much of our recent economic growth has been due to the success of high-tech companies and startups that have chosen to make Seattle home,” Murray said in an online report. “Yet not all Seattleites are benefiting from our technology boom, and we know that some neighborhoods today lack adequate, competitive choices for broadband Internet access.”

Sabrina Roach is a Brown Paper Tickets Doer specializing in Public Media. She believes that the regions that are underserved in Seattle contain many of the neighborhoods that are home to people of color and those with lower incomes.

“It impacts how our kids can do homework at homes, it impacts who has to wait in long lines for computer access at libraries, and it impacts what new small business owners can do from their homes,” Roach said. “It’s another roadblock that some of our most creative, inventive people would have trying to start new projects from the home.”

Roach says that there’s a lot more research and advocacy that can be done in the city to illustrate those differences in service.

“I’d really like to see someone create maps that show several layers of information, like the current service areas of Internet service providers that exist right now,” Roach said. “I want to see how it corresponds to historic redlining and racial covenants in neighborhoods.”

For now, the city is going to spend the next few months exploring and modeling the costs of a publicly funded Internet system.

For more information on what the city is up to, visit http://murray.seattle.gov/broadband. Those interested in Mitchell’s talking points and case studies can visit www.muninetworks.org.

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Editor’s note [10/28/14 at 11:15 a.m.]: Wave Broadband was included among Seattle’s Internet options mentioned in the first paragraph.

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