Controversy is brewing over the fact that Mayor Ed Murray (joined by City Council member Bruce Harrell) is thinking about making it easier for broadband companies such as CenturyLink—a Murray contributor—to get around current rules requiring cable companies to get property owners' approval before placing utility boxes in the publicly owned planting strip between a property owner's home and the street.

Reality check for nervous neighbors, though: The rule would only be waived in spots where Century Link wants to replace existing boxes.

Given what a flop previous efforts to wire the city have been (Mayor Mike McGinn got enanmored with a flailing start-up start-up called Gigabit, whose project fizzled right after the election), it's encouraging that Murray and tech committee chair Harrell are reevaluating the rules in an effort to give broadband companies an incentive to expand service in Seattle.

The stringent Seattle Department of Transportation director's rule, which requires 60 percent of land owners within a 100-foot radius to approve the placement of a box, stopped 60 utility boxes from going in between 2009 and 2011—preventing "next-generation" cable in 21,000 homes and businesses, according to CenturyLink.

In a 2013 report to the city, CenturyLink noted: "The inability to meet the Director’s rule requirements have left areas like Beacon Hill and the Central District with limited, or no competitive broadband options, and has limited competitive choices in communities throughout the city of Seattle."

However, the controversy around doing away with the rule—the unsightliness of the boxes, including the potential for graffiti—has pitted the public interest of expanding service against the public interest of neighborhood aesthetics. (Other options include putting the boxes underground or on utility poles, which both come with problems of their own, such as vulnerability to storms and ecological risks.)

Reality check for nervous neighbors, though: The rule would only be waived in instances when CenturyLink wants to replace existing boxes as part of a pilot project to upgrade current service; in addition to getting approval for siting new boxes, cable companies have to get approval from neighbors when they want to replace existing ones. As part of its proposed pilot project, CenturyLink wants to replace 70 boxes with new, slightly taller ones that would enable faster service.

Harrell staff says he supports changing the rule to facilitate a broadband pilot project in Beacon Hill. "The pilot will help establish new procedures to support broadband deployment and strike a balance between the need to protect and maintain a neighborhood’s character with the need to provide faster Internet speeds for hundreds of Beacon Hill area residents," Harrell staffer Vinh Tang says. 

Harrell has worked with the neighborhood group called UPTUN (Upping Technology for Underserved Neighborhoods) on the pilot project.

The group sent an email to Murray in January asking him to waive the rule:

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.

We have calls in to Mayor Murray.

Footnote: Waiving the rule to site boxes at new locations would require the city council to approve legislation—as opposed to waiving the rule to replace existing utility boxes, which just requires the mayor's office to ask the SDOT director to make the change.

And an urbanist aside: People who are upset about losing aesthetic control of the strips of public right-of-way outside their homes in the city should note that utility boxes can be re-purposed like they are in Toronto and Long Beach, California, and well, Seattle, where neighborhood matching funds paid for this utility box project, one of many utility boxes painted by local artists downtown.

1st & Spring

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