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How Seattle Is Addressing Its Digital Divide

March 1, 2017

As this blog has reported, Seattle, Wash. rejected the idea of building a city-wide, taxpayer financed Internet Service Provider (ISP) multiple times. In a recent StateScoop column, the city’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Michael Mattmiller discussed why the city opted against offering service directly to consumers and explains how Seattle’s alternative approach, which focused on stimulating private sector investment, has worked.

First, why did Seattle decide against a municipal network? Because of the cost, of course.

Mattmiller writes, “[O]ur study found Seattle could not afford building and operating such a service without additional federal funding support.” Mattmiller also notes that the “competition”—private providers—already were “lowering prices and discount[ing] services for low income households from commercial providers …”

That’s why the city focused instead on reducing regulatory barriers to private sector investment. This approach has worked. According to Mattmiller, it allowed one incumbent provider to build “a new fiber-to-the-home network that can deliver gigabit speeds to more than 160,000 households.” Additionally, the city’s “largest incumbent cable provider has invested in increased capacity to its nodes across the city and will begin offering gigabit speeds across its footprint this year.” Meanwhile “new providers” have “focused on providing high speed Internet options to apartment and condominium buildings” and “are driving even more connectivity.”

Mattmiller says the increased competition from these investments drove down prices for residents and brought “new options to our public.” Indeed, according to Mattmiller, the majority of Seattle residents now “have access to two or three wireline internet service providers” and 85 percent “have some level of internet access at home — one of the highest rates in the nation and significantly better than the 75 percent national average.”

The CTO acknowledges that the city is considering “opportunities to increase free public Wi-Fi …” But, here too, it seems the city is focused on how it can partner with the private sector, rather than compete with it. According to Mattmiller, city officials have “agreed to seek out innovative solutions from the private sector to deliver increased access via wireless technologies to these areas while minimizing costs to the city.” In fact, the city already has asked private providers for information about “what models for providing free public Wi-Fi might be successful in our community.”

Mattmiller says he looks forward to seeing how private providers respond to this request for information and to determining how city officials can work with them. We do too.