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It’s Groundhog Day In Seattle

October 19, 2017

TheStranger.Com reported earlier this month that the Seattle, Wash. city council will once again consider a measure that would allow local officials to explore the possibility of building a municipal broadband network. 

According to the website, council member Rob Johnson “plans to introduce an amendment to the 2018 budget to hire a city staffer focused on municipal broadband and create a ‘shovel-ready’ plan for building it.” Johnson’s amendment would allocate $170,000 for the effort. The staff member would be asked to determine “the costs of building the system, how much users would pay per month, discounts for low-income people, when and where the service would be rolled out, potential revenue sources to fund it, and a possible ballot measure to get that funding.”

Seattle has asked these questions before. In fact, TheStranger notes that city leaders previously have cast aside the possibility of a municipal system, but the website doesn’t fully explain why. For anyone who missed that debate, here’s a recap:

  • In 2015, a city-commissioned study determined that a municipal system would cost taxpayers between $480 million and $665 million to build.
  • To break even, the city would need 43 percent of its homes to subscribe to broadband plans costing $75 a month.
  • The city’s chief technology officer argued, “Even the most successful municipal broadband utilities don’t achieve that take rate.”
  • If the city was unable to attract that many subscribers, it would have to tap into its General Fund, “potentially reducing funding for basic city functions such as police, fire, parks and human services.”

The city would face stiff competition in its endeavor to attract nearly half of city residents to a municipal network. According to Broadband Now, nearly 99 percent of homes have access to broadband. In fact, most residents in King County, where Seattle sits, have access to speeds of up to 100 megabits per second. (A quarter of King County residents also have access to gigabit speeds.) There are 12 residential providers that operate in different parts of the city and 24 companies that offer broadband plans to businesses.

Seattle’s City Council will consider Johnson’s amendment this month. Stay tuned to this blog for updates.