An ongoing debate over making broadband internet a public utility in Seattle is surfacing in the city’s mayoral election, and advocates for the cause are crying foul over contributions large telecommunications companies have made in the race.
Comcast and CenturyLink, two internet service providers in Seattle, collectively donated about $50,000 to a political action committee supporting Jenny Durkan, a candidate who opposes municipal broadband. Municipal broadband advocates say that the telecom companies’ donations represent efforts to maintain the duopoly they have in the region.
The PAC is the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE), which is sponsored by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.
“If I was running one of the most powerful monopolies of the modern era, I’d be donating as much as I could to take over local politics also,” said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
The push for municipal broadband is driven in part by a desire to increase competition and lower the cost of the services that current telecom companies provide.
“The city isn’t preventing Comcast or CenturyLink from competing for our resident’s business,” said Devin Glaser, a spokesperson for Upgrade Seattle, a municipal broadband advocacy group. “If they want to stay in town, they’ll have to improve their service and lower prices. If we actually had competition in the marketplace, they would have done so already,”
A spokesperson for CenturyLink declined to comment about the company’s donations. Requests for comment from Comcast, CASE and the chamber of commerce went unanswered.
Durkan’s opponent, Cary Moon, has made internet equity a part of her platform, arguing that internet access is a necessity for most people. Implementing municipal broadband would mean turning internet access into a service provided by city-sanctioned companies, much like electricity and water utilities.
Seattle City Hall already has another advocate for municipal broadband. Councilmember Rob Johnson is proposing a financial commitment to the idea in the city’s 2018 budget. A 2015 attempt for a pilot program from Councilmemember Kshama Sawant failed. Sawant became vocal about it again in 2016 when the state of Washington sued Comcast for $100 million in a still ongoing consumer protection lawsuit, GeekWire reported.
The issue came up in the 2013 mayoral election as well, after reports that Comcast and CenturyLink heavily supported former Mayor Ed Murray, who ran against a candidate advocating for municipal broadband.
A recent opinion poll paid for by Moon’s campaign shows a tight race between Durkan and Moon, both Democrats, but with many voters still undecided. Durkan’s campaign has spent about $680,000 in the race, lapping Moon by about $400,000, according to public disclosures. The general election date is Nov. 7, with results scheduled for certification on Nov. 28.
“As Mayor, I will work with Council to develop a viable proposal and figure out how to make municipal broadband, as a city-wide utility, a reality,” Moon said in an open letter to local businesses. “If we all agree that everyone deserves clean water and reliable electricity and public education, then let’s establish that everyone deserves access to high quality service at an affordable cost.”
Durkan says a municipal network would be costly and is promoting alternative options for connectivity, including advocating for a stronger public Wi-Fi footprint throughout the area, according to her campaign website.
Stephanie Formas, a spokeperson from Durkan’s campaign told StateScoop in an email that high speed internet is “an important equity issue” and that the candidate has proposed a plan to connect “underserved neighborhoods, community centers, libraries, and schools in every part of Seattle.”
“Jenny would love to have municipal broadband, however she believes that Seattle must first and foremost address and solve our homelessness and affordability crisis, especially at a time that cost estimates of municipal broadband are upwards of $700 million,” Formas said.
But Mitchell and Glaser argue that public Wi-Fi and municipal broadband are solutions to different problems.
“We’re trying to get high-quality internet access available inside the home and Wi-Fi is not an appropriate technology … because the nodes are mounted out in the street and the signal quality drops off,” Mitchell said.
Durkan has proposed increasing the number of hot spots in parks and public libraries and installing Wi-Fi kiosks throughout the city.
“Wi-Fi in parks doesn’t solve any problems,” Glaser said. “Students in need of internet access in order to complete their homework assignments shouldn’t be expected to sit in public parks late into the evening.”
A 2015 survey conducted by the city showed that 15 percent of Seattle residents don’t have access to internet at home.
“Seattle, despite its reputation as a high-tech paradise, still suffers from the same connectivity problems the rest of America does,” Glaser said.
Mitchell argues that telecom companies are able to influence public officials not just through paychecks, but also through connections. In Seattle’s case, that could be evidenced by the fact that Durkan’s campaign consultant, Sandeep Kaushik, has also lobbied for Comcast. Kaushik’s position has prompted an ethics complaint from a current employee in the Mayor’s office, the Seattle Times reported.
“Companies like CenturyLink and Comcast aren’t powerful just because of campaign contributions,” Mitchell siad. “It’s because they have the ear of the powerful, day after day after day. And the powerful either don’t have the capacity or don’t have the time to take in alternate views.”
This story was updated on Oct. 27, 2017 to include a comment from a Durkan spokesperson clarifying the candidate’s position.