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Upgrade Seattle: Now is the time to push for city-owned internet

Upgrade Seattle argues that the current internet market is not fair. They want the City of Seattle to start its own internet utility. (James Cridland, Flickr)

Upgrade Seattle has spent the past few years creating awareness for a new city-owned utility. But there has been little movement toward making it a reality.

Devin Glaser with Upgrade Seattle says that now is an opportunity to get momentum going in order for Seattle to start its own internet utility.

“Next year, it’s going to be a mayoral election,” Glaser told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross. “People who are passionate about this issue, and who no longer want to feel like they have to use Comcast or CenturyLink or they want a better deal, they can bring that up during the mayoral election.”

Related: How to combine bike sharing and municipal broadband into one effort

“Mayor Ed Murray has already started running his reelection campaign, this is a good opportunity to talk with him about it,” he said.

Upgrade Seattle’s case for public internet

But why a city-owned utility when companies are already providing the service?

“We see internet availability similar to electricity, water or the postal service,” Glaser said. “It’s becoming crucial to day-to-day life. Whether it’s looking for work. Doing work, school work, etcetera. We really can’t go without it.”

“It should be a public utility,” he said. “We would like to see the city treat it like that. This goes beyond the noble idea that things you need should be utilities. Small towns have already done this, and they’ve been very successful.”

Upgrade Seattle argues that by making the internet a publicly-owned utility, it could level the field for internet throughout the area by making the market competitive, while also creating new avenues to internet access for those who currently don’t have it. Glaser said about 15 percent of Seattle households — about 93,000 — have no internet access. That’s either because there is no access to begin with, or they cannot afford it.

“By making it a public utility, first, it’s just cheaper for everybody,” he said. “If you are currently paying for your internet and can kind of afford it, you can have more for less. For those who cannot afford current internet service, they can have discounted rates. If you look at Seattle City Light, they have one rate for people who are doing OK and can afford their bills, and they have a separate rate for people who are having a hard time.”

“The City of Seattle did a study on this last year and found that we could provide a gigabyte internet for $45 a month,” Glaser said. “That’s about a third the price the private sector charges.”

Glaser argues that private utilities can put up large sums of money into their infrastructure and that basically pushes out any competing companies. Internet providers, therefore, do not compete in a free market.

“Comcast, CenturyLink, and other telecommunications companies have actively worked to fight the free market,” Glaser alleges. “They have inserted different laws in state legislatures across the country making it harder for public utilities to compete.”

Upgrade Seattle said that a public internet utility evens the playing field for internet service, while also making the service local. Glaser points to dealing with Comcast customer service as an example.

“Comcast, at the end of the day, doesn’t care about Seattle,” he said. “They like that we keep paying for them. But because there is no real alternative, we’ll continue to have to stick with them.”

The recent lawsuit against Comcast could be another argument for municipal broadband. Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson recently announced the lawsuit, which alleges that Comcast engaged in “deceptive practices” that Ferguson says cost its customers more than $70 million. Essentially, Comcast convinced customers to pay into a $5-per-month protection plan that had significant limitations.

But convincing the Seattle City Council that municipal broadband is a necessary next step might be difficult. After all, the council wouldn’t even OK a $5 million pilot program for municipal broadband. That was justified by the council, however, by a study that found the project would cost up to $665 million.

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