Commentary: Chief Technology Officer Michael Mattmiller explains how new programs and approaches to connectivity are helping the city overcome its digital divide.
The internet is the essential utility of the 21st century.
Having internet access brings together communities, improves learning outcomes for students, and drives economic growth. When Seattle Mayor Ed Murray took office in 2014, he recognized the need to increase digital equity and made access to the internet a priority of his administration. Three years later, changes made by the city have resulted in new competitive internet service options and increased speeds for a majority of Seattle residents. Seattle is now taking the next step in our broadband journey by identifying opportunities to increase free public Wi-Fi and bring internet closer to those who do not have access at home.
Cities are our country’s economic growth engines. No fewer than 83 percent of Americans now live in urban areas, and our future success depends on having the best infrastructure — including broadband. As cities grow and more users demand service, existing broadband infrastructure is becoming strained.Wiring and supporting networks originally designed to deliver telephone or television services to facilitate modern internet uses — from videoconferencing to over-the-top streaming services — requires upgrades. In addition, some areas have seen a lack of competitive broadband internet options lead to unaffordable services and poor customer service.
In Seattle, most households have access to two or three wireline internet service providers. Data indicates 85 percent of Seattle residents have some level of internet access at home — one of the highest rates in the nation and significantly better than the 75 percent national average. Yet home access is not even across the city. Broadband adoption rates are noticeably lower in households that are diverse, lower income, or with lower education levels. To make access equitable, the city needed more affordable, competitive, and equal broadband internet options that approach a rapidly evolving gigabit standard.
To achieve this goal, Mayor Murray focused on three strategies: reducing regulatory barriers to increase competition, public-private partnerships, and exploring options for the city to provide service directly to the public. These strategies are proving successful. Based on changes to make our permitting processes more consistent, our incumbent telephone provider built a new fiber-to-the-home network that can deliver gigabit speeds to more than 160,000 households. Our largest incumbent cable provider has invested in increased capacity to its nodes across the city and will begin offering gigabit speeds across its footprint this year. And new providers focused on providing high speed internet options to apartment and condominium buildings are driving even more connectivity.
These developments are bringing new options to our public, driving down prices, and empowering consumers. For example, after our incumbent telephone provider announced their new fiber internet service, our incumbent cable provider doubled customer internet speeds in their most common packages — at no additional cost to customers. The same company has increased speeds two more times in the past 18 months.
Yet home internet access is still unattainable for some households. The City studied overcoming this gap by becoming a wireline retail internet service provider. While we are impressed with the success of cities that have made this model work, our study found Seattle could not afford building and operating such a service without additional federal funding support. With increased competition lowering prices and discounted services for low income households from commercial providers, we received feedback that cost may not be the greatest barrier to increasing access in remaining offline households.
Wi-Fi internet connectivity can serve as a form of social safety net for those least able to afford broadband services. It can also provide a public amenity allowing Seattle residents and visitors increased access to the internet without using cellular data plans. Currently, the City of Seattle provides free Wi-Fi at city facilities including City Hall and Seattle Municipal Tower, public libraries and community centers. In a drive to make Wi-Fi more available, the Seattle Public Library makes hundreds of Wi-Fi hotspots available for checkout. These efforts help bring internet access closer to home, but we do not have a coordinated strategy for managing or increasing Wi-Fi access across the city.
Working with Mayor Murray and Council Member Bruce Harrell, we agreed to develop a City Wi-Fi strategy. As part of this effort we would identify areas where increasing Wi-Fi availability could bring access closer to homes not currently online and thus have a meaningful impact on internet access. We also agreed to seek out innovative solutions from the private sector to deliver increased access via wireless technologies to these areas while minimizing costs to the city.
Last month we issued a request for information (RFI) to get input from companies on what models for providing free public Wi-Fi might be successful in our community. We are excited to learn how companies would provide this service at low or no cost to the city, potentially in exchange for access to city-owned assets, such as fiber optic cables and building sitings. Companies may also propose using such Wi-Fi networks or related infrastructure builds for multiple purposes, such as deploying infrastructure necessary to support the next generation of LTE and 5G wireless services, or enabling internet of things (IoT) devices that will enable future smart cities uses that increase operational efficiency. We look forward to reviewing the responses and discussing the proposed models with our stakeholders, including our Community Technology Advisory Board, and ensuring that proposed solutions uphold the ideas found in the city’s Privacy Principles.
Seattle continues to make progress increasing affordable, competitive, and equal broadband options across our city and increasing the percentage of homes connected. We look forward to understanding innovative new deployment models and, with the help of partners, demonstrating how an urban city can get broadband right.