Saturday, May 23, 2009

Trying again with a question from Thursday night

Thursday night was the candidate forum hosted by the 46th District Democrats. We worked hard on the questions that were asked, but this being my first time I hadn't thought of one question long enough or hard enough to really put it into the right words. I'm going to try again here.

Here is the original question, posed to the Seattle City Council candidates:

Tacoma has a free broadband network and Seattle has a large amount of unused fiber capacity belonging to private corporations. What are the pros and cons of sponsoring a similar free broadband network and would you support it?

First, Tacoma doesn't really have a "free broadband network". They have a high speed backbone running through the downtown that businesses can tap into and use. They did put $100 Million into a fiber-optic network that connects businesses and residential neighborhoods. Here's an article from August of 2000 about it and what people thought it might do to the economy in Tacoma at the time. So that was badly phrased.

What was most distubing to me was the answers that were given by the candidates for Position 6, including the incumbent, Nick Licata. Both Martin Kaplan and Jessie Israel talked about how it just wasn't feasible right now to do anything with high speed internet at the expense of the city, when our top priority should be economic growth.

... Excuse me?!

Ok, (I thought) maybe I'm missing something. I went to college to learn about technology and how it can spur economic growth. It's a no-brainer to me. Nick Licata mentioned that the council had looked at the issue, is looking at the issue, and might again look at the issue in the future. But it's not something that we can do right now, what with all the work it would take to place the lines and set everything up.

... Excuse me?!!!

In a discussion with Rusty Williams later, who had done a little bit of reading on the subject, he sent me this note:

As an IT major and a veteran of the dot com era, nobody knows better than I do the economic energy that it produced. One technological idea I have is to install a fiber optic network throughout the city. This network would be the uber-high speed conduit for deploying the City's digital media services. But the beauty would be in licensing this network to entrepreneurs who in turn would compete for our communications dollars resulting in better service, lower prices and better features. Imagine getting only the television channels you want. Or changing vendors when you are dissatisfied. We could see an end to the current oligopoly.

This is closer to the kind of answer I was looking for, but there was still something in the back of my mind bugging me. Tonight, I found it.

Dark Fiber: The region's fiber-optic networks remain largely unused

Seattle doesn't need to install anything. During the 1990's, like the Barenaked Ladies sing, "It's All Been Done". And it's still mostly dark. Meaning unused. Sleeping, like our economy right now.

So, what to do... How about a rephrasing of the question?:

When I was in college in 2002, I saw a report in the Puget Sound Business Journal on the tremendous amount of fiber optic cable under the streets of Seattle that had been installed in the 1990's but had since gone 'dark', meaning super high speed broadband capacity that was not being used. What can the city do to ignite the economic engines of our city by making use of this under-utilized resource?

Candidates, it's your move.


Jessie Israel said...

Thanks for bringing this up, Chad. First and foremost: I am a huge supporter of technology and broadband access. We are heading into a time when more and more are going to be working from home (keeping folks off the roads!) it will be critical that we not only have available bandwidth for data download - but also for data upload. You are exactly right. I have worked with folks across the country dealing with this and other technology issues and here is why I’m cautious about a NEW CITY-OWNED utility:
1) Cities have a track record of getting into technology projects and then letting the hardware/software stagnate. Innovation and upkeep are going to be ABSOLUTELY KEY in this type of City owned utility. “Slow” or “unresponsive” would be the kiss of death for a City owned broadband network. I am not convinced we are there yet. If we have capital dollars for tech improvements, we should be spending them on what we already do to make it more efficient and responsive to citizens. City Light should be implementing Advanced Metering Technologies (smart grid). SPU and the Customer Service Bureau should be implementing 311 technologies.
2) I know the folks around the Country who are on the leading the pack with regards to City Wide wifi, wimax and broadband. A few years back I worked with Microsoft to bring WiFi to 170 acres of Marymoor Park in Redmond. That experience colors my view significantly.
3) There are two models to consider: Government builds and owns the infrastructure itself (like we do with highways) or we rent out an asset to private seeking companies (like we do with railroads). Revenue from a potential “fiber optic easement” could support any number of things – including ensuring that low income families have affordable broadband access. Public-private partnerships tend to be the model I prefer – particularly in a budget crisis when we’re cutting other critical services.
4) If a City owned fiber optic asset is not being used, my first question would be WHY? (that’s an earnest question, not a rhetorical one)

I could talk a lot more about this and am looking forward to continued discussions. You are absolutely right that low-cost broadband access is going to be a critical part of people’s lives in the next decade and beyond. But our job is to make sure that we get to that outcome with a solid return on any public investment we make and that we're not jumping into a new line of business which may be better served by the private sector.


a progressive crank said...

Following a link from Facebook where someone made a reference to this post: here's what I left there.
My take on a lot of this is that the monopolies have gotten a better deal than a monopoly should. If Comcast has the cable monopoly, as it does in most of Seattle, the right to provide any additional services (broadband, phone) should push the cost of the monopoly service -- the one where I don't have a choice in providers via the marketplace -- down as close to zero as it can get. Likewise, Qwest: if they want to sell me phone service AND internet AND digital TV, the bill for the phone service I can only get from them should go down. A monopoly should be treated as a regulated utility with a mandate for universal coverage at regulated rates, as with electricity and water.So not related to your point but not entirely orthogonal. A key role of government is to enable economic development, via infrastructure investment (roads and bridges, subways -- imagine NYC w/o the subway -- electricity and water) and anyone should be able to see telecommunications as the 21st century's version of electricity in terms of what energies it might unleash.

Chad Lupkes said...

I'll go through your points.

1. I agree. When a project is set up to depend on money from the general fund and tax revenue drops, projects get cut. So don't use the general fund. Set up a specific funding mechanism that brings money from the use of the services. Governments are allowed to charge usage fees that exceed the costs, they're just not in the habit of doing that because (gasp) "that's the job of for-profit companies, and we're stifling innovation". Yawn. Give me a break. If government were smart enough, they would generate revenue sources and then put the money back into infrastructure. Is Seattle City Light "slow" or "unresponsive"? No. How about our water utility? Sewer? Others? No. Because the power, water and sewer (don't talk to me about roads) systems in this city have been identified by the city government as core infrastructure, worthy of whatever resources and management decisions are necessary to get them back up to speed after an accident or disaster. If the city put the same kind of priority on the core infrastructure of our telecommunications systems, nobody would complain. You can even outsource the management to local (I did say local, right) companies that can do the job under city oversight. And wouldn't the best way for the city to create a "smart grid" be to take advantage of the fastest possible line connections between two points on the network? Sounds like fiber to me.

2. I'm really interested in hearing what you learned and how your views are colored.

3. The error in your statement is that we don't own the railroad lines. Does Sound Transit own the BNSF line they use? They do own the light rail line, because they built it from scratch, but most railroads in existence is under private ownership right now. Wasn't always the case, but after the 1890's, public ownership took a dive. We've been struggling for years to bring the eastside rail line under public ownership, and BNSF has been fighting it from the start. I consider railroads to be core infrastructure. I think the governments should own them, joint between Federal, State and Local. Private corporations should be tasked with providing services to people using this infrastructure, and be charged reasonable fees to do it. Getting back to the fiber, they're already using the public right of way, and should be charged to use it. Those fees should be going into technology services for the citizens of the city.

4. The fiber lines in the ground are not owned by the city. We allowed the streets to be torn up, the lines installed, and the streets "repaired" (again, don't talk to me about roads). But there should have been a clause in the easement request that said if those lines go dark their ownership reverts to the city so they can be used. They're dark because the city has no jurisdiction over them. That's a problem.

What bothered me with your answer is that you said we could either grow the economy OR we could build infrastructure. To my perspective, we can't grow the economy without FIRST building infrastructure. Or taking charge of infrastructure that already exists and is not being used.

a progressive crank said...

You might want to ID who you are replying to . . . . I was confused about your answers.

To Jessie's point 3: re-cast it as streetcar lines instead. They were owned by private companies but treated as utilities (granted the permission to run their infrastructure down public streets and I expect also given a preferred rate on their power consumption). In some places they were/are owned by the public. Look at LA where they are building a new metro transit system to replace the one they tore up in the 50s (thanks, National City Lines!!). I think municipalities need to be more aggressive about putting these services in just as they were with water and electric (can you build a building w/o tying into the city services? Then why should be able to build w/o tying into a transit grid?).

Chad Lupkes said...

Hi Paul,

Where on Facebook did you see a link?

I don't think we should be encouraging or even allowing monopolies. The best way is to understand that the infrastructure is owned by the state/county/local government, and the service providers like Comcast and Qwest maintain the lines under contract while content providers manage their "property" at the end of each line. That would work for phone, cable, fiber, just about anything.

a progressive crank said...

Link: here it is As for utility monopolies, I understand your position and am no fan of monopolies: they need to be monitored ruthlessly, like weeds. But they may be a necessary evil. I don't know if I want competition for water or sewage services more than I want reliability and consistency. If Water Supplier A is cheaper than B, what are they doing differently? Do I want innovation there? Different pipes or new filtering technology? No, I think I want a tightly regulated supply.

As for the cable and phone monopolies, if we agree to grant the monopoly, it comes with the obligation to serve everyone. That's part of why everyone has a dialtone: it wasn't the beneficence of Ma Bell ;-) But as the telcos get into different areas, I think the costs for the basic connection needs to be adjusted as they roll out higher-margin optional/discretionary services, like broadband and TV (for which there is a marketplace). Likewise the cable cos with broadband and phone.

Jessie Israel said...

Hey Chad. Great seeing you at the KC Dems the other night. Here's the link I was telling you about. This group did some good work thinking through the City's assets, needs and opportunities around broadband infrastructure. What I appreciate about this is that they took a realistic phased approach. They didn't assume a NEW PULBIC utility was the best outcome. They did look at all the different options for meeting the obvious need that is coming down the pike on the broadband front:
See you soon!

Nick Licata said...


I’ve taken a while to respond to your blog entry because I wanted to get a better handle on the important issue of how the city can build a public broad band network. As I mentioned at the 46th District meeting the city has looked at it in the past and has not taken significant steps forward. I reviewed my notes and did some additional research. Here is what I found and what I propose.

The City does own fiber underground, mostly downtown, which was
installed piece-meal over the years and without a plan for utilizing
it. And, City Light owns a fiber optic network that serves its
substations. Private companies also own fiber along various City
rights-of-way. While City Light's plan to create a fiber optic smart
grid while also delivering broadband to homes and businesses would
result in a better system than the one we have now, it falls short on
two points. For one, City Light has so far shown little interest in
expanding its mission to become an internet service provider.
Secondly, its approach to broadband may not allow the full potential
of fiber to be realized.

City Light's plan is to save money by building only to nodes within
each neighborhood and relying upon the private sector to build from
those nodes to individual homes and businesses. The assumption is that
companies would use fiber, but there's no guarantee of that. 100
megabits per second (Mbps) speed to the nodes could slow significantly
if hard-wire or Wi-Fi or something other than fiber were used to reach
individual homes and businesses.

Tacoma's CLICK works well at providing everyone affordable service,
but it's somewhat limited by its reliance on hard-wire cable. Seattle
has an opportunity to bring to broadband the same municipal-owned
model that's made City Light so successful.

First, we should apply for broadband stimulus money to build a pilot
fiber-to-the-premise (FTTP) network in one Seattle neighborhood. It
would serve all residents, businesses, public facilities, and
institutions there. The Central District meets the Fed's criteria for
seeing stimulus dollars spent on under-served communities. Residents
and businesses in the CD have been paying more for internet and cable
TV service than other neighborhoods, yet they are less satisfied with
the level and quality of service according to the City's recently
completed audit of Seattle cable service providers. One can make the
argument that the CD is being under-served because it's the only
neighborhood in Seattle not receiving the better service and lower
cost found in every other neighborhood in Seattle.

Once that neighborhood is up and running and we've worked out the
kinks, we should adopt a realistic 10-year strategic plan for
expanding the system to all our neighborhoods. It won't be cheap, nor
will it be easy. But, it may will be worth it.

I believe internet service has evolved from a university communication
tool into a basic utility. In order to best serve the public interest,
running it as a municipal service, as are our other utilities, might be the best approach.
Luckily, Washington is not among those states that have prohibited
municipalities from owning and operating broadband services. Although
it's likely businesses here would sue Seattle to prevent another
Tacoma CLICK, such suits might ultimately fail and Seattle
would again find itself at the forefront of innovation in governance.
An innovation that in this case would provide Seattle residents with
the best possible broadband service at the lowest possible cost.