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Monday, July 17, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Brier Dudley

Broadband rush is risky, Seattle

Seattle Times staff columnist

When I heard that Seattle was pursuing a citywide broadband network, I hoped it would take a cue from visionary city engineer R.H. Thomson.

A century ago, Thomson could tell Seattle was a happening place. He built huge water and electricity systems, irritating private utilities that hadn't stepped up to the plate.

Thomson's real innovation was making sure these utilities were city-owned, so the people of Seattle would benefit from and control this critical infrastructure.

There's a lot of Thomson in the report that a city task force delivered to Mayor Greg Nickels a year ago, urging the city to be sure it gets top-tier Internet service.

Keep building the city fiber-optic network, and start exploring ways to give residents cheap, fast broadband access, the report said.

Let's hope Thomson doesn't fade from the picture. There's a risk that in its haste the city may instead take cues from Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president who gave away natural resources and state facilities in the name of economic development and modernization.

Eager for service

Seattle is so eager to get faster broadband service — and so nervous that it will be left behind — that it's offering up priceless assets.

I'm all for broadband, and the city's vision is exciting. But if it's going to be a privately owned network, the public's contribution has to be reasonable and modest.

What's scary is how the situation is being cast as a crisis that needs quick action and a generous subsidy. There's no crisis, and the chances of Seattle being left behind are slim.

I also don't agree that high-definition video — the main reason to build this network — is a vital service that needs a big public investment in a project that may approach the cost of another stadium.

Seattle businesses, schools and government already have plenty of access to fast, fiber-optic networks. The only problem is that Qwest is lagging behind other regional phone companies that have started bringing fiber to the home.

Perhaps the city's only trying to pressure Qwest to pick up the pace. A new network piggybacked on Seattle's fiber may break the Qwest-Comcast broadband duopoly. But how far should the city go?

If you think I'm being harsh, read the "request for interest" or RFI the city issued to broadband vendors in May.

Do they need a place to run cables? The city's 1,650 miles of streets "could be made available for use by an infrastructure partner."

Seattle also owns about 1,000 buildings "that may be available for use by the successful proposer."

Not enough? Put antennas or substations in city parks, beaches or open spaces. Don't worry about land-use restrictions.

Offer to companies

The city is also offering to let companies use its fiber-optic system. The deal will make "the network one of the most cost effective builds in the country." The companies should then have annual sales "in the hundreds of millions."

Bill Schrier, the city's chief technical officer, said nothing has been given away yet.

"We're just listing the assets that might potentially be available."

I'm not the only one who thinks this is a sweet deal — 28 companies replied to the RFI, and the city will respond to them Aug. 18.

Drastic steps — like cluttering parks and open space with humming telecom equipment — might be okay if the city was lacking some vital service. They could be almost palatable if the result was free Internet access for everyone.

But Seattle decided not to provide the service itself, like it does with other utilities, and this network won't be free.

Instead the city's offering to subsidize a for-profit fiber-optic network that may not have to reach every home and business.

This network would mostly deliver high-def video content, like TV and movies. That's hardly crucial, despite the RFI's waxing on about schoolchildren needing to videoconference, the environment benefiting from more telecommuting, and residents needing high-def, interactive broadcasts of city hearings.

All Seattle schools will have fiber connections, funded by a special levy, within two years. You can videoconference and telecommute now with broadband services.

People have also been telecommuting via the Web for a decade with minimal effect on traffic and global warming. High-def council meetings? Right — and I need an Xbox for reporting.

Last year's report said the city's existing fiber-optic network could serve as the basis for a public wireless-access network, similar to what's being pursued by San Francisco, Paris, Philadelphia and London. But that's not good enough.

Seattle wants companies to offer 25 megabit-per-second fiber connections to homes and businesses — enough to supply two streams of high-definition video content and a 6 Mbps Internet pipe.

The rates could be around $100 a month, and the city's feasibility studies are based on 30 percent of residents subscribing.

A 25 Mbps network would be cool, and I'm sure Seattle will eventually get one, with or without the subsidy. As one of the most desirable markets in the country, it can afford to play hard to get.

Meanwhile there's no crisis. High-def digital content is available from Seattle's TV stations over the air, free.

Businesses, government agencies and schools have plenty of fiber available, and there's more unused capacity in the downtown area.

There's also free Net access at coffee shops and libraries throughout the city.

Besides, it's a risky time to play all the city's chips. Congress is rewriting telecom policies, which may open markets to new providers and spur private investment.

Qwest will have to respond to competition from Comcast eventually. Fiber to the home is happening in the Greater Seattle area, where Verizon is bringing fiber to Eastside homes.

Despite Seattle's infrastructure, local companies are on the cutting edge of broadband technology. Craig McCaw's Clearwire is preparing to offer wireless broadband here, and Microsoft has developed ways to help phone companies deliver digital video over existing copper phone lines.

The task force provided a valuable service in assessing the city's infrastructure needs and setting the bar high for telecom providers. It might be why Comcast is stepping up its investment here and offering broadband that bursts up to 12 Mbps.

Would it hurt to wait until the industry and regulatory situations are sorted out?

In the meantime, let's try a more extensive, free public Wi-Fi network. That would do more to bridge the digital divide. It would also be groovier and more appealing to the techie hipsters the local industry needs to attract.

Start with a Prius before pawning our public assets for the down payment on a Ferrari.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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