Mayor Mike McGinn has won political points in the final days of the mayoral campaign from a Washington Post story about contributions from Comcast to his opponent, Ed Murray; the Internet company gave $700 to Murray and almost $10,000 to two pro-Murray independent expenditure groups.

The story, which quotes McGinn and two of his supporters but includes just one anonymous quote from a Murray spokesman (his name is Sandeep Kaushik), asserts that Comcast's contributions have contributed to Murray's "limited enthusiasm" for a public-private partnership with startup Gigabit Squared to provide high-speed broadband to 14 neighborhoods in Seattle. (Last year, McGinn announced a deal to lease unused dark fiber to the company, which will provide Internet service at speeds up to 100 times faster than conventional broadband. We reported on Murray's Comcast contributions and the Gigabit context earlier this year here). 

The Post story says the mayoral election "could determine whether Seattle residents have new options for high-speed broadband service, or will have to make do with the slower services already offered by incumbents like Comcast"—implying that McGinn wants more options, and Murray wants slower service provided by Comcast. 

In a glowing followup interview with McGinn today, the same Post reporter lobbed such softballs as "Who is your current Internet provider?" and "Could you go into more detail about how important you believe high speeds are for the innovation economy in Seattle?"

Kaushik tells PubliCola he reached out to the Post to ask for a clarification or correction to their initial story—"I pointed out to them that they could have asked, rather than making assumptions"—but "they refused."

McGinn is standing by his statements to the Post. In an interview with PubliCola, McGinn said the Comcast money speaks for itself. "They [Comcast] don't just spin their wheel and decide who they're going to support. It's clear Comcast has decided to invest a lot in this candidate. ... I don’t know what Senator Murray will do [about the Gigabit proposal], but what I do know is that people whose businesses would be challenged by a potential competitor are supporting him."

Murray, not surprisingly, disagrees. "Money has never influenced me," he told me today. "You saw me go after Microsoft," which pulled its support for Murray's gay-rights bill in 2005,  "and they've given me money in the past. I didn’t hesitate to oppose them on gay marriage, either.""I don’t know what Senator Murray will do [about the Gigabit proposal], but what I do know is that people whose businesses would be challenged by a potential competitor are supporting him."–Mayor Mike McGinn

In a statement today, Kaushik said, "Ed does support the City's current efforts with Gigabit Squared to create a high speed broadband network. Unfortunately, the article then goes on to speculate that Ed might decide in the future not to support an expansion of the current City plan (to provide service in 14 neighborhoods). That speculation is simply wrong. Ed thinks competition is a good thing, and supports the creation of a citywide high speed broadband network."

Contacted by phone (while he was getting a haircut) today, Murray added unequivocally, "I support the Gigabit proposal," but "there are other companies who I am sure would want to be players.

The Post story was a score for McGinn. In addition to links on big tech blogs like Ars Technica and TechCrunch, the story was briefly the top post on Reddit. However, the story's prominence may have also called attention to the shortcomings of McGinn's broadband gambit. 

"If [Gigabit] has a model that can be expanded that's working, we should expand it and make it work." If not, Murray said, "I support competition." The real problem, Murray charges, is that "McGinn said he would deliver four years ago"—when he vowed to implement universal broadband during his first term—"and he hasn't.""McGinn said he would deliver [on broadband] four years ago, and he hasn't."–McGinn challenger and state Sen. Ed Murray

City Council member (and Murray supporter) Bruce Harrell, who chairs the public safety and technology committee, told PubliCola that his issue with the Gigabit proposal is that it hasn't materialized. "McGinn has not delivered on his promise to develop a city-wide broadband system. ... The company McGinn’s office vetted was supposed to start service this fall but has been pushed back to next year. I would like the company to build more in underserved neighborhoods but they have not (only two small pockets in the south end)."


Initially, Gigabit said it would provide service to 14 Seattle neighborhoods in the fall of 2013; now, they're planning a phased rollout in 2014, starting with South Lake Union and the University District in the spring.

"This story goes back to the larger issue of the mayor being unable to work collaboratively to get things done," Harrell says.

McGinn says he remains confident Gigabit will deliver."Our expectation is that they will do it, and if they aren't able to do it ... our offer to the private sector to use our dark fiber and to use our telephone poles for the purposes of stringing out fiber optic line is open to anyone who wants to make an offer," McGinn says.

One potential competitor is Centurylink, which has been trying—with the support of a Beacon Hill-based group called Upping Technology to Underserved Neighbors, or UPTUN—to get the Seattle Department of Transportation to change a rule that gives any property owner within 100 feet the right to veto the installation of the utility boxes that link up Centurylink's high-speed networks. UPTUN says it has been trying for four years to get the rule changed, with no success.

In an effort to address their concerns, Harrell says, "I have directed SDOT to expedite legislation to codify new regulations for permitting new telecommunications cabinets in the public right of way."

UPTUN points out that Gigabit, a startup that was founded in 2010, still doesn't have a single broadband system in operation, meaning that Seattle could be the guinea pig for an untested company. "It's very odd that the Gigabit project is being touted as a success when they haven't done anything yet," says Robert Kangas of UPTUN.

McGinn says the problem is that the Centurylink proposal, unlike Gigabit's, requires the installation of "really big boxes in the right-of-way, and any time you do something in the right-of-way people care about it." That's a position that would seem to contradict McGinn's staunch support for incursions into the righ-of-way such as bike lanes, rain gardens, and crosswalks, all of which inevitably anger some neighbors, though he points out that crosswalks and other road improvements, unlike utility boxes, address "public safety issues."

While the last-minute press boost from the Washington Post buoyed McGinn, it may have also produced a backlash. In addition to critics like Harrell and UPTUN, Seattle Times tech columnist Brier Dudley weighed in this afternoon, writing: "The Post cast the story as entrenched telecom interests battling a mayor trying to finally give the city fast broadband service, saying that voters basically have a choice between good or bad broadband. Which is misleading and ridiculous."

Dudley pointed out that McGinn pulled the plug on free wi-fi and "abandoned years of city planning to build a citywide broadband network and bring fast, affordable service to everyone" before making a deal for fast broadband—with Comcast. Only when that deal fell through did he hook up with Gigabit—and only then did Comcast become a villain. 

Oh, and Murray's campaign ended the day with a blistering press release announcing a press conference with a member of UPTUN to "set the record straight about McGinn’s record of failure on broadband, and his desperate, deceptive efforts to rewrite history in the last days of this campaign."

This may seem like a tempest in a teapot compared to major issues like the city's crumbling transportation infrastructure, police accountability, or housing affordability—and it is. But it's also an issue that's been hotly debated since McGinn was elected—on a platform, it should be noted, that included municipally funded broadband for every resident of the city, not privately provided service for a handful of neighborhoods. 

 

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