The Seattle City Council just voted unanimously to overhaul the cable franchise agreement structure. This opens up the door to competition and makes it possible for new providers to enter the Seattle market and compete with the existing cable providers.
I have CenturyLink’s 1gb fiber to the home and it’s glorious!
Before I get into gritty details, here’s what CenturyLink’s new fiber-to-the-home service looks like… absolutely beautiful. Geeks behold, this is the future.
It has taken four long years, but Beacon Hill (and Seattle) finally has a new/old kid on the block that’s going to give the cable providers a run for their money for internet service. In September 2014, the Seattle City Council unanimously overturned SDOT Director’s Rule 2-2009, which made it nearly impossible for telecoms (CenturyLink, Google Fiber, etc.) to place broadband equipment cabinets in our neighborhoods, while it let the cable providers place practically any equipment they wanted. The playing field is now level and we’re starting to see what competition looks like.
Since the Director’s Rule was overturned, what are we seeing now?
- CenturyLink is building out 1gb fiber optic connections to homes in some parts of the city. It’s not city-wide yet, but you have to start somewhere.
- The competition is starting to increase their speeds for free to compete. This means that it’s not just CenturyLink’s customers that win… everyone wins. http://blogs.seattletimes.com/brierdudley/2014/11/03/comcast-doubling-internet-speeds-in-puget-sound-region-spokane/
I’m one of the lucky early adopters of CenturyLink’s 1gb fiber connection. Here’s what the equipment looks like (note: I have a somewhat non-standard install. Where the equipment gets placed is a “it depends” kind of scenario depending on how your house is configured. The usual preference would be having a small box on the outside of the house to make the equipment more serviceable… mainly someone doesn’t need to be home if they need to fix an equipment issue)
Instead of having a box installed on the outside of my house, I was able to get the fiber optic equipment installed in my basement. Here’s the fiber optic modem attached to one of my floor joists.
Here’s the battery backup / power supply for the fiber optic equipment.
Here’s my new wireless adapter (yeah, I had to just make room on my desk until I return my old equipment)
It’s too early to tell how this is going to look during peak usage periods, but I’ll find out over the coming weeks. More competition’s good, right?
Since all of you are going to ask, here are some of the important details:
- 1gb service costs just over a hundred a month with a contract
- There’s no bandwidth cap
- Uploading a 6gb HD video to youtube took me a few minutes… on my old service, it took almost a day to upload.
-Robert Kangas (Chair of UPTUN.org)
PS: I’m not or have never been an employee of CenturyLink. UPTUN.org is a bunch of techie volunteers and industry representatives that got together a handful of years ago to try to solve the broadband connectivity problems in the under-served neighborhoods of Seattle. We work with CenturyLink and the City of Seattle (and other providers in the area to improve broadband in Seattle).
Also, this was so fast that Ookla’s Speedtest service doesn’t scale properly for it. Notice how the dial goes from 75m to 900+m. You guys need to update your interface now. 🙂
Last month, Bill Schrier and Robert Kangas interviewed with Susan Crawford’s office (Harvard Law, formerly President Barack Obama’s Special Assistant for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy and is currently a columnist for Bloomberg View) for a paper she was writing on difficulties in pushing out Fiber Optic internet to Seattle, Washington DC, and San Francisco.
She articulated the problems in Seattle well. This is totally worth a read since it dives into why we lack good internet options in the city.
Clear the Air about Gigabit Broadband in Seattle
Upping Technology for Underserved Neighbors (UPTUN) is a citizen group advocating for better broadband for residents across Seattle. We have been operating for over four years, pushing the city to take steps to improve broadband access, speeds, and price because we believe this issue touches on all facets of economic development, social justice, public safety, and education.
For policy makers to pursue good decisions, we need to strip away the myths. Here are a few things you may not have known about broadband in Seattle:
1. Gigabit is currently offered in Seattle.
Currently, all three of Seattle’s major broadband providers (CenturyLink, Comcast and Wave) do offer gigabit service, but only in select buildings where they already have fiber optic connections. For example, CenturyLink can offer gigabit speeds to around 2,000 units that it serves. The reason gigabit service is not more prevalent is because it is very expensive to roll out and the customer demand isn’t there yet. For example, Google Fiber does not even serve all the buildings in Kansas City, and according to Akamai, actually serves fewer than 830 customers as of April 2013. According to NetIndex.com, Google Fiber’s average speeds are around 90 Mbps, which doesn’t even make it the fastest ISP in Kansas City – and is slower than some Seattle ISP’s.
Currently, most of the customer demand for gigabit speed service is in the business market, where these providers and others such as Integra Telecom, Level 3 Communications, and F5 Networks serve robust business customer demand. Residential customer demand is also generally well-served in multi-tenant or multi-dwelling buildings located around the South Lake Union core, but less well-served in the outlying neighborhoods.
2. Gigabit Squared may have folded due to the City of Seattle.
In early October 2013, representatives of Upping Technology for Underserved Neighbors (UPTUN) met with the Seattle Department of Information Technology (DoIT) and Gigabit Squared (GB2). In that meeting, it was revealed that Gigabit Squared was suffering from being unable to find private funding for its network rollout. While that public story broke in early December by Geekwire, what wasn’t mentioned in the story was that the City of Seattle had no idea what its excess fiber was worth or where it was located.
According to city records obtained by UPTUN, DoIT’s own engineers underestimated the cost of determining the value and location of Seattle’s own fiber assets. An agreement signed by GB2 shows that an initial study for $25,000 was to be conducted by DoIT and paid for by GB2, with a delivery date of June 30, 2013. As that date started to near, the City came back to GB2 asking for another $25,000, to which GB2 agreed. When that delivery date came and went, DoIT returned yet again to GB2 for another $50,000 (for a total of $100,000) and tried to extend the delivery date until December 31, 2013.
By late November 2013, it became clear that GB2 did not have its financial models together and was having a hard time attracting financing – partially because it was unable to determine its cost basis of the excess fiber lease from the City of Seattle. Without being able to determine how much the lease was worth and having already issued a $70 per month subscriber price point, it is quite likely that financial institutions and private equity investors looked unfavorably at GB2’s ability to generate revenue and control costs. This likely dealt GB2 a fatal blow and in late November, the company decided to cut its losses and run.
UPTUN sent a letter to Mayor Murray and the Seattle City Council on January 21st, 2014 to suggest the way forward with improving broadband infrastructure in Seattle.
Dear Mayor Murray:
The members of UPTUN.org (Upping Technology for Underserved Neighbors) are enormously grateful that you’re making broadband a priority so quickly into your new administration, supporting our goal of providing high-speed Internet access for everyone in Seattle. We’ve been fighting this front for over four years now and we’re happy to see this getting the attention it deserves.
UPTUN believes that Seattle’s values are best reflected by first addressing the needs of our most underserved citizens who are operating on near dial-up speeds (1.5 megabits or less), not by focusing on the needs of the very top end of the gigabit market. For this reason, UPTUN believes there are immediate fixes you can make today, which include:
- quickly streamlining outdated permitting requirements for placing of broadband equipment in the public right of way;
- ensuring that city rules support deployment of at-grade (street-level) equipment and do not favor just aerial or underground options; and
- working with local Internet service providers to see what additional obstacles are blocking their path to faster roll-outs.
With the demise of the Gigabit Squared project in Seattle, it is clear that reaching the lofty goal of gigabit fiber to every house in Seattle is not one that is easily financed. No doubt, Seattle is a technology leader and we should accept nothing less than a world-class broadband infrastructure, but if we cannot provide even basic service levels to our citizens most in need, we will widen the broadband gap – not make it better.
As Mayor, you have an opportunity to fix the problems the last administration failed to act on and help guide Seattleites’ expectations towards a more realistic outcome that will still achieve the target outlined in the National Broadband Plan: 100M Americans having affordable access to at least 100 megabits per second and actual upload speeds of at least 50 megabits per second by 2020.
There are actions you can undertake today to fix our most pressing problems. They include:
Opening up the city to competition and making the regulatory environment friendlier to broadband investment.
This one is simple. Ease the requirements for telecommunications broadband equipment placement in the public right of way (SDOT 2-2009) by simply requiring a land-use action notification, as opposed to the burdensome and stifling requirement in place today. The existing rule requires the written approval of abutting homeowners and 60% of landowners within a 100’ radius of a site have to agree to a project (unfortunately, abstentions currently count as no votes). This causes projects to be held hostage by a single property owner or a small majority of naysayers. This requirement should be scrapped.
Making sure SDOT realizes that street-level network equipment is a viable option.
While we recognize that SDOT Right-of-Way managers try to do good work, one department can have a very narrow viewpoint and miss the broader policy implications of broadband’s impact on economic development, utility infrastructure, or social justice. We believe good broadband policy starts with your office – not with SDOT ROW managers.
For instance, while SDOT ROW may prefer beautiful streetscapes and push for more aerial deployments, it may cause Seattle to create additional blight in the sky (see attached photo). Putting so much broadband infrastructure on utility poles may also make the city more vulnerable to large storms with high winds, which could knock out both Internet and cell phone service.
Additionally, SDOT prefers undergrounding equipment, but fails to realize that burying equipment can be both ecologically-sensitive and cause serious construction noise issues in quiet neighborhoods. Because equipment that draws more than five amps needs a separate power meter on a pedestal for billing and emergency shut-off purposes, an underground vault is about the size of a bomb shelter (see attached photo of underground vault installation) and requires an above-ground footprint similar to an at-grade equipment box.
UPTUN believes the impact of the construction of many such ‘Little Berthas’ in our quiet neighborhoods should give you and the City Council pause for concern.
Like Big Bertha, the cost of such underground equipment averages about three to five times more than at-grade equipment placement and causes Internet service providers to divert their resources elsewhere. Other cities that have underground requirements for broadband facilities, like Portland, OR have negatively impacted Internet speeds there. Portland’s Internet speeds are slower than Seattle’s and they’ve fallen to #22 out of #50 top cities in Oregon in terms of speed. SDOT’s refusal to back down on its policies have caused Seattle to fall behind other cities with more favorable policies like Aberdeen, Lacey, Kelso, Graham, and Bellevue. (source: http://www.netindex.com/download/3,91/Washington/)
The solution is clear: Seattle should allow the broadband providers to design their networks, using the configuration that makes the most sense given each sites individual circumstance – do not favor aerial or underground solutions over at-grade deployments.
Work with local providers before committing to a municipal broadband solution.
Before committing the city to a long-term municipal broadband build out that a city consultant has identified would cost $459M in 2007 dollars, please be aware of other communities where a municipal broadband solution has failed. Provo, UT just sold their fiber network to Google for a dollar. (http://www.tomshardware.com/news/Google-Fiber-Provo-iProvo-Price-Purchase,22135.html) Tacoma’s Click! Network, which cost in excess of $100M, actually runs substantially slower than its private sector counterpart, Comcast, and has yet to be profitable.
Instead, we urge you to use the $400+ million in taxpayer money to improve our police force, provide social services, and improve education and unleash the private providers so they can spend money so we don’t have to. You can do this by calling our local incumbent providers (Comcast, CenturyLink, and Wave Broadband) together for a conversation that addresses the regulatory issues they face with the city – but do so after fixing the issues we’ve already identified here.
UPTUN is excited for the opportunity to work with you and the excellent team which you are putting into place. By focusing on tackling the low-hanging fruit of telecommunications cabinets in the public right of way, making at-grade equipment a viable option, and working with local providers before ‘going it alone,’ with a municipal broadband project, we think Seattle has a bright future in providing faster broadband access for its citizens.
The most important thing is that we address the pragmatic, simple fixes in front of us today.
There is a lot of bang for the buck that we can get out of making rules changes that help telecom providers like CenturyLink, get shovel-ready projects moving in months, not years. We urge you to focus on those, rather than wasting another year and $52,000 of city dollars for another ‘white knight’ like Gigabit Squared to materialize – or navigating the deadly waters of the Seattle Process in trying to figure out an equitable tax structure to finance a municipal broadband system.
We are falling behind and have no time to waste.
Robert Kangas (UPTUN.org member)
UPTUN is not surprised Gigabit Squared couldn’t deliver, due to the fact they had no track record and inability to raise enough funds. However, Seattle’s permitting and approvals drive up costs, making it more expensive and slower for broadband providers to find financing for projects. In many cases, the permitting requirements block the deployment of next-generation broadband infrastructure from the established providers. For over four years, UPTUN has urged the city to quickly clean up its rules and processes, including SDOT Director’s Rule 2-2009, so broadband providers can get to building shovel-ready broadband projects. We need action now:
- Repeal the excessively-burdensome permitting requirements in the Director’s Rule: http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/docs/dr_sdot2-2009searchabletext.pdf
- Approve the long-delayed broadband pilot project from Bruce Harrell on Beacon Hill: http://www.uptun.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/NorthBeaconHillCouncil_BruceHarrell_Letter_2-05-13.pdf
From the BBC:
“Americans pay so much because they don’t have a choice,” says Susan Crawford, a former special assistant to President Barack Obama on science, technology and innovation policy.
Although there are several national companies, local markets tend to be dominated by just one or two main providers.
“We deregulated high-speed internet access 10 years ago and since then we’ve seen enormous consolidation and monopolies, so left to their own devices, companies that supply internet access will charge high prices, because they face neither competition nor oversight.”
Read the entire article here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24528383
UPTUN Status Update
I want to thank all of you who joined in on the July 22 UPTUN letter to the Seattle Department of Transportation requesting they change their rule so we can get faster broadband. We got over 130 co-signers! Wow! That goes to show you just how important an issue this is to people.
Instead of allowing this simple change, SDOT is doing the standard barrage of “what-if” scenarios where the agency starts jumping at shadows because they don’t want to act. You’ve seen this kind of decision paralysis before – it’s why we have such a crappy transportation system in Seattle. The bottom line is this: modern day infrastructure like a bridge, roadway, or telecommunications system will have some visual impact. There’s no getting around that.
What SDOT fails to understand is that you can landscape and mitigate these visual impacts when your equipment is on the ground. We’ll probably never completely eliminate overhead wiring, but UPTUN has offered a solution that could potentially reduce that overhead clutter by making it possible to put equipment on the ground *and* improve broadband dramatically in our underserved neighborhoods.
Our next steps
- We’re going to start hitting the media up with op-ed’s to build more support for our side
- We need you to comment on our site. Tell us how the sad broadband situation has affected you. Bonus points if you can explain how it impacts your ability to work / run a business. Please comment here: http://www.uptun.org/2013/09/12/statusupdate/
Hey all, UPTUN’s going to be sending a letter to SDOT to try to force some change to the Director’s Rule that’s effectively blocking new broadband equipment from rolling out in Beacon Hill and the other underserved areas of Seattle. Most of us are stuck with the choice of a cable provider or nothing for high-speed internet. Well, we’re all tired of it. It’s time to take action.
Here’s the letter we’re sending to SDOT / the City of Seattle: http://www.uptun.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/SDOT-letter-July-2013.pdf We’re looking to get as many cosigners as possible before we stick copies of this in the mail on Saturday. Will you add your name to the list of supporters of this letter? The more supporters we get, the better the chances of a good, timely outcome. The time to act is now.
Will you put your name down? Will you get your fellow neighbors / nearby business owners to do so, as well? If you’re going to do so, please give me your name and what organization / business or part of the city you belong to. For example: Robert Kangas (UPTUN member) or Robert Kangas (Beacon Hill resident).
-Robert Kangas (www.uptun.org)