City task force wants broadband to reach all homes
Times technology Reporter
In the future, if tech-heavy Seattle wants to remain competitive at its own game, every household should have access to high-tech Internet services, according to a task-force report released yesterday.
The report carried an equally urgent message: The city should get involved by developing a fiber-optic network that would reach every home. It needs to do this, the report contended, because current telecommunications providers may not develop the services being built in other cities.
Originally, the city's Task Force on Telecommunications Innovation was formed to evaluate whether Seattle should blanket the city with wireless broadband technology called Wi-Fi. Other cities, including Philadelphia and San Francisco, have announced massive Wi-Fi plans, but the task-force report opposed the idea.
"Wi-Fi isn't a bad goal, but we have a much wider and larger goal to embrace," said Seattle City Councilman Jim Compton, who chairs the Utilities and Technology Committee, which heard the recommendations yesterday.
Instead, the task force said the goal should be for every home and business to have affordable access to broadband networks capable of providing voice, video and data by 2015. That would most likely require laying fiber-optic cable to each home, one of the most expensive options.
The report did not outline who would build the costly network, how it would be built, or where the money would come from.
The task force, made up of industry leaders, government officials, educators and former business leaders, met 13 times and gathered information from other cities, experts, technologists and local telecom providers — Comcast and Qwest.
It also recommended that the city create an Office of Broadband to determine how the plan would be implemented.
Steve Clifford, the task-force chairman and former chief executive of King Broadcasting, said if Seattle doesn't upgrade its broadband network, it would be the equivalent of having dirt roads when other cities have highways.
Today, most of Seattle has broadband access in the form of DSL or cable modem. But the task force envisions services that require faster speeds and more capacity than available now. Such services include high-definition television, video conferencing, and business and educational uses.
The approach the task force is urging follows in the footsteps of Tacoma Power, which built the Click! Network. That network involves a system of fiber-optic cable reaching into neighborhoods and coaxial cable into individual homes. Click! provides an alternative service for voice, TV and broadband access.
The task force suggests that Seattle leverage the 320 miles of fiber optics the city already owns, as well as a plan to expand fiber into schools. Such a system means fiber would reach into virtually every neighborhood.
Clifford said the network could easily be used to support a wireless network for the city's police and fire departments and Seattle City Light, replacing a potpourri of costly systems now in place.
The goal, however, is for a fiber network available for broad public use, but Clifford contended Comcast and Qwest have no plans to build it.
"Of all the local telcos, Qwest showed the least interest," he said. The company is financially burdened by debt and would find it difficult to roll out services in lots of markets, Clifford said.
In Comcast's case, he said, lack of competition means it would not be forced to innovate quickly or provide an affordable service, forcing Seattle to slip behind other markets.
Shasha Richardson, a Qwest spokeswoman, said comments made at the council committee meeting yesterday mischaracterized Qwest's position. Qwest now has 100 miles of fiber in Seattle and has spent $2 billion on upgrading its network in Washington over the past five years.
She added that the company is continuing to evaluate new technologies to provide higher-speed service at a fraction of the cost of laying fiber to the home.
Comcast declined comment yesterday, but it outlined its views in a letter to the city included in the report. It wrote: "We believe that the network we have in place is either already providing these services today ... or capable of providing these services in the next year."
Clifford acknowledged that building any network could take awhile.
"It's not an overnight solution," he said, "but this is an essential first step to a solution."
Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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