citywide broadband: did you know…?

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    did you know that it is illegal for a city in washington state to operate a telecommunication utility that provides services to end-users?

    the first few paragraphs of RCW 54.16.33:

    (1) A public utility district in existence on June 8, 2000, may construct, purchase, acquire, develop, finance, lease, license, handle, provide, add to, contract for, interconnect, alter, improve, repair, operate, and maintain any telecommunications facilities within or without the district’s limits for the following purposes:

    (a) For the district’s internal telecommunications needs; and

    (b) For the provision of wholesale telecommunications services within the district and by contract with another public utility district.

    Nothing in this subsection shall be construed to authorize public utility districts to provide telecommunications services to end users.

    in other words, a municipality may only build a network’s physical structure; but they have to lease operation of that system to a private entity to make it available to end-users.

    i think that there are too few operators and providers in seattle, and that it has led to companies like comcast fixing internet and teevee prices at arbitrarily high rates. so i was researching what happened to mike mcginn’s 2009 campaign pledge to provide citywide broadband to seattle. my thought is that if we, the people, had a municipal broadband network, comcast would be forced to reduce their prices to reasonable levels.

    it turns out that since 2009, seattle has laid over 500 miles of fiber optic cable. however, because of the RCW, seattle can only contract its use to private providers like comcast. pioneer square got fiber optic internet service in 2011 – but end-users can only buy that service through comcast, because they won an “open” bid process, much like they did with the city’s coaxial cable network.

    does anyone else here believe that the state law is wrong? it seems to have been penned to favor big telecom companies and their arbitrary rate-setting. the conspiracy theorist in me believes that it’s a tool to protect comcast’s profits in the 23rd largest city in america.

    in contrast, tacoma’s click! network – built and operated by tacoma power – was one of the first municipal telecommunication systems in the country. their service predates the RCW, which was written in 2000, so they’re “grandfathered” in. and you know what? comcast’s prices in tacoma are significantly lower than they are in seattle because they are competing with click!

    shouldn’t we repeal this barrier to commerce that is RCW 54.16.33? shouldn’t we have more choices in supposedly tech-savvy seattle? and – if nothing else – shouldn’t we be more aware of and engaged in how the city awards these telecommunication contracts?



    I like it!! I have been a big fan of municipally-operated utilities, having lived in Seattle my whole life and lived with Seattle public utilities (power and light, water, sewer, garbage). I think we pay fair prices and the service hasn’t been anything for me to complain about – tasty water and consistent electricity/garbage pick-up. In a day and age when an informed population is essential, i don’t see why municipally-operated broadband should be any different. What we have now (and have had for a long time) is essentially cable provided by a monopoly, with very few customers willing to sing their praises.


    Does any one know how we go about getting this law changed? That’s what we need!



    i’m thinking that there are a few ways to overturn this law.

    one way would be to challenge its constitutionality, which would require a municipality to start a broadband network, fighting legal battles all the way, and once/if it’s established,

    1. be sued by private operators under the existing statute, or

    2. have a suit against said municipality filed by the state.

    the other way would be to write an initiative and overturn it the same way the ban on charter schools was overturned. outcome not guaranteed.

    either way, i would expect comcast and time-warner to amass huge legal resources to protect their respective sand boxes. i would also expect them to lie profligately through advertising blitzes – which cost them next to nothing.



    there might be another way, using something like a public trust to actually comply with the statute.

    if the city ran fiber optic to, say, fairmount springs, that neighborhood could set up a public trust, which i believe has the same rights and responsibilities as private corporations. in common law, it usually refers to municipal or local control of natural resources, like water. so it would probably require a bit of a legal stretch to have it apply to a more modern definition of “the commons.”

    anyway, a public trust or some other legal public cooperative could then bid on a contract with the city to provide retail broadband to its area, buy a small server farm, start collecting bills, and start serving its neighborhood.

    this could also probably be done with blind trusts, or, if an individual wanted to set up a corporation for that purpose, i’d bet it would fly – as long as his neighbors trusted him not to sell it or usurp it.


    i’d bet 10 to one that if such a thing were legally possible, comcast would, again, amass huge legal resources to block it.

    just spitballing here.



    Actually that RCW only applies to Public Utility Districts which are separate municipalities, not cities or city utilities. So it doesn’t prevent Seattle from providing the service. I don’t know if there is a similar section in the RCW that applies to city utilities.



    you may be right about that, kwickag. it turns out that king county is one of a handful in the state that doesn’t operate a public utility district. my main problem was the definition of “public utility district,” which i conflated with a publicly-owned utility.

    washington is one of 19 states with barriers to municipally-owned telecommunications:

    there are a number of PUD-owned fiber networks in washington, but only where there are fewer than 100 people per square mile.

    here’s an interesting – if somewhat discouraging – read:

    looks like here in seattle it’s mainly an issue of political will required to fight big cable. as the author concludes,

    Mayor McGinn knows all about being pilloried on the Internet. The last thing he needs is to be pilloried for ruining it.

    but my opinion is that mike mcginn has nothing to lose, if i’m reading the political tea leaves correctly. so why not?

    but as another blogger put it,

    I wish I could disagree with his conclusion that Seattle is unlikely to get a community fiber network but unless the community rises up to demand it, elected officials are unlikely to see any benefit to making such a long term investment.



    The time to demand this was when Comcast was moving in, asking for monopoly rights on the condition that they’d build and own the network. Now that it’s built, it’s a harder sell.

    Should the City build its own cable network alongside Comcast’s?

    Should the City “nationalize” Comcast’s network?

    Neither option would be politically feasible I’m afraid, even though I’d be the first to argue for nationalization.

    As newer, cheaper (?) technology comes on line, we could maybe revisit the issue.



    the city owns the coaxial cable, DP. we may have contracted the build-out to TCI or whoever, but we lease it to comcast to provide retail cable. the current 10-year contract with comcast is 5 or 6 years old.

    my fear is that the fiber optic that the city has already laid and which we own – over 500 miles so far – will be leased out the same way.

    i’m not opposed to comcast providing end-use to consumers, but they have no effective competition, which is something that tacoma has proven can and should happen. tacomans pay an average of $30 for basic cable teevee from comcast. comcast seattle’s average is $55 for the exact same service.



    i just got this interesting news in my inbox last week.

    The City of Seattle has reached an agreement with broadband developer Gigabit Squared to develop and operate an ultra high-speed fiber-to-the-home/fiber-to-the-business broadband network. The plan will begin with a demonstration fiber project in twelve Seattle neighborhoods and includes wireless methods to deploy services more quickly to other areas in the city. The initiative, leveraging the City of Seattle’s excess fiber capacity, the expertise of Gigabit Squared, and the community leadership of The University of Washington, aims to stimulate business opportunities, spur advancements in health care, education, and public safety, and enhance quality of life for the residents and businesses of Seattle.

    i sent the mayor a letter asking two questions:

    will west seattle be one of the test markets?

    will the city sign another stupid monopoly contract for fiber-to-the-home like we did with comcast?

    and then i went on a rant about the lack of competition in the high-speed cable tee vee and internet market. and comcast’s huge advertising budget in a market with little or no competition for broadband – which might be one reason why our bills are so high.

    i also vowed to grill all city council and mayoral candidates about the generally poor state of corporate-run telecommunication services in one of the most progressive cities in america.



    ken made a comment in a political thread about this. in response, i’m not sure if GB2 will be the provider through a “giveaway” contract like comcast has with coaxial. but the city is definitely contracting them for engineering and build-out services, to show how fiber-to-the-home/business can be built out efficiently.

    and as i said to ken, this appears to be an end-run around comcast, who operates the city’s fiber optic lines in pioneer square through yet another monopoly contract.

    then again, i want this for our city pretty badly, and i might be seeing what i want to see. the only thing i don’t want to see is contracts that only allow a single provider to use the city’s physical network. if tacoma can do it, so can we.

    from the gigabit squared web site:

    We are looking forward to taking this journey with the mayor’s office, Seattle’s citizens, organizations, and businesses as we all work together to make the Emerald city a “city of Tomorrow.” Keep coming back to for updates, and if you are interested in service, make sure you signup at

    so, for what it’s worth, we west seattleites can express our interest in getting FTTH to the peninsula. according to the signup link, the more people respond, the more that neighborhood becomes priority.

    however, sadly, here’s the answer to my second question to mcginn:

    The initial 12 neighborhoods include: Area 1: the University of Washington’s West Campus District, Area 2: South Lake Union, Area 3: First Hill/Capitol Hill/Central Area, Area 4: the University of Washington’s Metropolitan Tract in downtown Seattle, Area 5: the University of Washington’s Family Housing at Sand Point, Area 6: Northgate, Area 7: Volunteer Park Area, Area 8: Beacon Hill and SODO Light Rail Station and Areas 9-12: Mount Baker, Columbia City, Othello, and Rainier Beach.

    it appears we’re not in the running – yet. maybe we could change that…

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