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Originally published April 5, 2014 at 3:58 PM | Page modified April 7, 2014 at 9:13 AM

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Guest: How to build a high-speed broadband network in Seattle

While people in Stockholm and Seoul are paying $30 per month for gigabit-speed symmetric fiber access, people in Seattle are paying far more for far less, writes guest columnist Susan Crawford.


Special to The Times

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LAST month, a commenter on Reddit said it “is almost revolutionarily awesome that the Mayor of a major U.S. city is taking time to reply on Reddit.” The commenter was talking about Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.

Whether it was the mayor or a member of his communications team posting under his name, Murray is crushing it on Reddit, a popular news discussion site visited by 112 million people a month. And the Seattle denizens of Reddit were particularly thrilled that the mayor said he is investigating possible solutions that could open up competition for high-speed Internet access in Seattle.

The mayor gets the big picture. As he said in a Reddit thread, “Access to high-speed Internet is important for our economy, to address income inequality, and to ensure access to our democratic processes.”

He said in a statement that he opposes the Comcast-Time Warner merger because he understands that a bigger Comcast would be even less likely to provide Seattle businesses and citizens with reasonably priced, world-class high-capacity Internet access. The bottom line: The people of Seattle must provide the mayor with the political support he needs to fix Seattle’s communications problems.

People in Seattle now are mostly stuck with Comcast’s high-speed Internet access service provided under the company’s TV franchise agreement with the city, which is up for renewal in 2016. Federal policy has taken away from the city the power to explicitly regulate the terms or pricing of Comcast’s high-speed Internet access as part of this TV franchise.

Seattle’s situation mirrors that of the entire country. For about 77 percent of Americans, their only choice for high-capacity data connectivity is their local cable monopoly — and if the proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger is approved, in 20 of the country’s 25 largest markets that company would be Comcast.

Comcast, as a profit-making company, has every incentive to make more money from the same number of people rather than expand or improve its network. It will favor its own services, charge other networks to connect with it, announce speedy services that will not reliably be available when everyone’s online at once in a given neighborhood, continually (if incrementally) raise prices, and otherwise act just like a monopoly.

There is nothing evil about this; indeed, Comcast is a great American company acting within the letter of the law.

But for Seattle, as for the rest of the country, Comcast’s interests don’t align sufficiently with Murray’s goals of economic growth, universal access at reasonable prices and world-class connectivity.

On the most basic level, Seattle is an uploading — creative, innovative — community, and the cable network was built to greatly emphasize passive downloading. And while people in Stockholm and Seoul are paying $30 per month for gigabit-speed symmetric fiber access, people in Seattle are paying far more for far less.

Even though high-capacity connectivity is a key input into every element of economic, social and cultural life, just as electricity was a century ago, Comcast is exacting a tax from every Seattle business and consumer because it is unconstrained by competition.

Seattle, like the rest of the country, has two choices: attempt to regulate or open up an alternative network. Regulatory efforts don’t seem to have much effect on Comcast, and federal regulatory policy in this area is sufficiently bollixed up that it will take a long time to change.

That leaves alternative networks as the remaining timely option. When a city is not satisfied with the service rendered or the rates charged by a private company that is selling what has become a communications utility, it has the undeniable right as one of its functions of government to move in another direction.

Don’t take my word for it. That’s what President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in 1932 about the private trusts that were controlling the electrification of America. He called municipal networks a “birch rod in the cupboard, to be taken out and used only when the child gets beyond the point where more scolding does any good.”

Seattle already has a history of creating a municipal utility — Seattle City Light was founded in 1910.

Seattle has also already learned hard lessons on broadband, having been burned by the failure of Gigabit Squared, which partnered with the city to bring high-speed access to residents, then failed to raise the money needed.

We now know from former Seattle Chief Technology Officer Bill Schrier, through a Crosscut article, that the city’s ordinance calling for one-off property-owner approvals of fiber cabinets and its pole-rental requirements made it uneconomic for Google Fiber to show up. Murray is determined to get that ordinance off the city’s books, according to a Seattle Times technology column by Brier Dudley.

It’s just as well that Google isn’t coming. The Seattle City Council and the mayor now have the freedom to lead the rest of the country in building a world-class wholesale fiber network so as to ensure retail competition to every home and business.

Float a bond and make sure that every time a street is ripped up for conduit repair, dark (unlit) fiber is installed in every avenue to connect every building.

Make sure that basic infrastructure such as conduits and dark fiber is under the city’s control, whether or not the city itself operates or maintains it. Make sure that any needed poles are accessible to competing providers at no charge.

Support the mayor’s plan to change city ordinances to smooth the way for any street furniture that is needed for fiber installations. Require landlords to have neutral points inside buildings that have standard interfaces for fiber. Lease dark fiber at a fair and fixed price to retail operators.

In the end, the city would have fiber access to every business and home provided by a fiercely competitive private market — just as Stockholm and Seoul have had for years.

This will take time and careful planning; it’s the root canal of policy. But Seattle — a city that prides itself on being a center for technology development, and cares about the economic and social well-being of all its residents — must do better.

Susan Crawford of New York is a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, a Bloomberg View columnist and author of “Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age.”



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