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Originally published May 6, 2012 at 8:00 PM | Page modified May 7, 2012 at 6:25 AM

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Seattle pulls plug on its broadband network

Providing fast Internet access is seen as key to improving quality of life, attracting entrepreneurs and nourishing business. Yet few cities have gotten it done, challenging the telecom industry.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Forget about Seattle's grand plans for a city-sponsored, superfast broadband network.

Seattle has quietly given up, ending nearly a decade of blue-ribbon commissions, reams of studies and public outreach.

Since 2004, residents were tantalized by the prospect of affordable, fiber-optic service that would offset the near monopoly of Comcast and boost creativity, collaboration and innovation.

The closest Seattle came was a meager test of public Wi-Fi service along a few blocks in Columbia City, University Way and downtown parks that began in 2005.

Last week the city literally pulled the plug, ending its "community wireless service" April 29.

It was time to update the network, and the city opted to spend the $100,000 elsewhere.

"With the general-fund budget situation being the way it is, I recommended to the mayor — and he agreed — we should shut it down," said Bill Schrier, chief technology officer.

Providing more and better access to the Internet is a national priority. It's seen by local governments as key to improving quality of life, attracting entrepreneurs and nourishing business.

Yet few cities have found the gumption to get it done and challenge the powerful telecommunications industry.

Municipal Wi-Fi is easier to build than fiber broadband, but it's still been a mixed bag. Over the past decade, cities across the country tried offering free Wi-Fi through public-private partnerships that largely failed.

Now phone and cable companies are trying to seal the coffin. To protect their lock on broadband, they've pushed state laws blocking or preventing municipalities from offering Wi-Fi or broadband services. The laws have passed in at least 19 states, according to Muninetworks.org.

In years past, Seattle stood up to this kind of bullying and built its own public utilities.

Schrier hasn't heard of such laws surfacing in Washington, yet. Phone companies needn't bother.

Now the hero may be San Jose, Calif., in the heart of Silicon Valley. It's building one of the nation's fastest Wi-Fi networks to serve city agencies and provide free public access in 1.5 square miles of its downtown.

Networking gear must be cheaper closer to the source. San Jose expects to spend $94,000 building the new network and $22,000 a year to operate it, which is about the same cost as its current system.

Schrier wasn't familiar with the details of San Jose's plan.

He was an early proponent of Seattle's broadband plan, but no longer.

He's retiring after 29 ½ years and spent Friday packing up his office. Among the artifacts he uncovered was a 2003 plan to provide free Wi-Fi downtown, another forward-looking project that never came to pass.

A series of mayors talked about the importance of citywide broadband, but none saw it through.

The new plan is to hawk portions of the city's internal fiber network to the highest bidder. Schrier said Mayor Mike McGinn will propose an ordinance within two weeks to offer up "excess capacity."

Apartment developers, private schools or even a hospital could end up using parts of the network Seattle spent more than $50 million building for city use.

The city is putting energy into a project with the University of Washington to use city assets for a small pocket of fast broadband, perhaps in South Lake Union.

That won't do much for people like Gordon Curvey, a Columbia City resident who used the city Wi-Fi to learn the HTML language for building Web pages and to run a music website.

For Curvey, it's appalling the hometown of Amazon.com and Microsoft's founders can't keep providing the service.

"I could see it happening in Olympia or Wenatchee or something like that, but Seattle?" he said. "Come on, I don't get it."

Neither do I.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

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