Winning Municipal Broadband Will Take a Grassroots Movement



On the morning of April 9th, tens of thousands of Comcast’s Seattle customers suddenly found themselves without internet, television, or telephone service for hours. The outage was attributed to a damaged Comcast fiber optic line in Madison Park.

Frustration mounted as the workday in parts of the city came to a virtual shutdown with no projection of when services would be restored. Messages like ‘Comcast told us, out until 5pm. Dude. Seriously? We’re trying to run a business and are sending 34 people home,’ and ‘Dear Comcast, From hell’s heart, I stab at thee,’ began appearing on Twitter.

The outage incident has renewed the already popular call for municipal broadband – high-speed internet provided by the city as a public utility – in Seattle. And the call is getting an echo from most candidates running for city elections this year. The important question is how Seattle can actually win municipal broadband.

Municipal broadband means making the internet a public utility – city owned and city operated – because internet access, like electricity, water, and garbage pick-up, is an essential part of our daily life. The purpose of a public internet utility is to provide high-speed, affordable and equitable internet coverage to all Seattle neighborhoods, residents, and businesses. Municipal broadband can be a powerful lever against the digital divide that condemns people to the isolation and reduced economic opportunities experienced by many of our low-income, disabled, and people of color community members.

Municipal broadband operations would be accountable to us and subject to public oversight and scrutiny. Service and price changes would require public input and democratic approval. Priorities for public utilities are entirely different than for corporate entities: municipal broadband would mean resources could be used to build carrier redundancies into the system to prevent mass outages, instead of high executive salaries.

Municipal broadband can create quality union jobs and keep the money paid by customers in the local economy instead of paying millions each month towards corporate profits. Super high-speed universal connections are also extremely attractive to businesses looking for a place to open shop.

Precisely because of what municipal broadband means, though, we should expect a fierce opposition from Comcast and CenturyLink. With their vested interest of billions in profit, they will not acquiesce simply because municipal broadband is a rational policy for Seattle. If all their other lobbying fails, Comcast will come with a Trojan Horse offer of a “public-private partnership” which usually means using taxpayer money to assist in accumulating private profits.

It helps to learn how other cities have been able to win municipal broadband. Chattanooga is the largest success story to date, serving a population of 150,000. It offers a 1 Gig fiber optic internet connection with upload and download speeds that are 200 times faster than the current national average, and at far lower prices.

Chattanooga’s publicly owned electricity company, EPB, spearheaded the move to municipal broadband. Like Chattanooga, we have a publicly owned electricity company, Seattle City Light. According to Christopher Mitchell, a leading nationwide expert, Seattle should begin thinking of City Light not merely as an electricity utility, but as a technology utility – a publicly owned one-stop-shop to deliver reasonably priced electricity and internet service equitably and affordably to all.

Chattanooga succeeded because the city stood up to systematic attempts by Comcast to defeat the effort.

Comcast ran 2,600 fearmongering commercials on television attacking the idea of municipal broadband, and filed four legal challenges against the city of Chattanooga.

Seattle would be the largest city in the country to implement municipal broadband. We should expect Comcast and CenturyLink to go to every length to keep their unchallenged duopoly in Seattle. Countering them will require a mass citywide movement, much like the one we needed to win $15/hour last year by successfully overcoming the financial and political clout of fast food and retail giants.

As chair of the Seattle City Council Energy Committee, which oversees Seattle’s public electricity utility, I encourage Seattle residents to get involved in this year’s process of appointing a new general manager for Seattle City Light and provide their input on whether a commitment to municipal broadband should be a selection criterion for the job.

It is up to us working people to build a strong enough grassroots movement for municipal broadband to force elected officials to put Seattle’s need for universal, affordable high speed connectivity over Comcast and CenturyLink’s insatiable drive for profits.

Come to City Hall on July 8th to Get Involved!

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