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Seattle's Chief Techie Sees Future in Two-Way Video

By Glenn Fleishman September 30, 2009

Mayoral candidate Mike McGinn revived the notion of a city-wide bond-financed fiber-optic network that would bring optical cables directly to homes—so-called fiber to the premises (FTTP) or fiber to the home (FTTH). Last week, I spoke with McGinn about broadband and he leaned heavily of the idea's utility and feasibility on a 2005 committee report and 2007 financial analysis.

For me, McGinn was long on big-picture issues and short on specifics. For example, why build such a network in the first place, even if it could ostensibly be funded (as the financial report indicated) out of revenue bonds, that would repay bond purchasers only from income from running the system?

McGinn's answer was that Seattle needs to stay ahead in broadband speeds to stay competitive. Okay.

So, to actually answer the question, I turned to Seattle's chief technology officer (CTO), Bill Schrier, who was installed just this week as president of the Metropolitan Information Exchange (MIX), a group comprising municipal information technology officials of towns and counties of 100,000 citizens or more. Schrier—an active blogger and Twitter user—doesn't know whether he'll have a job when a new mayor comes into office, but he had just celebrated his 25th year in city service when I spoke to him this week.

Schrier has been a tireless advocate of expanding broadband service in the city, and has a track record on the municipal side to show for efforts. Over the last 10 years, Seattle has built what now amounts to over 400 miles of fiber-optic connections to reduce costs paid to communications firms and improve efficiency among its offices, as well as those of county, state, and federal agencies within Seattle, the Seattle schools, public safety (police, fire, emergency), Seattle City Light, and the University of Washington.

Schrier says that 100 Mbps FTTH is required (as a starting point), not just faster DSL or cable, because it enables two-way high-definition videoconferencing and high-bandwidth collaboration. While you can fire up a Webcam any time and use a variety of instant-messaging software to have a two-way chat, that's a far cry from HD video, which starts to approach the feeling of being there. HD cameras are increasingly affordable; the software exists; broadband is the missing piece.

While this might seem like an edge case for putting fiber to every home that wants it, Schrier makes a good case based on Seattle's ability to compete as a place to live and do business.

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Noting all the Microsoft spinoffs and ventures by ex-Microsofties, Schrier said, "Those sorts of companies survive here because they can attract talent, but they also need to collaborate," with other companies—as well as Microsoft. "They can collaborate by driving to meetings, or, they can collaborate by two-way HDTV if it's a available."

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Schrier regularly talks to businesspeople who would like to increase the amount of telecommuting time they offer to employees, but because employees can't get fast enough or reliable enough connections at home, it's impossible.

"Many companies might stay in Seattle for other reasons, but if that high-speed networking is important to them, if telecommuting is important to them, they're going to go someplace where FiOS [Verizon's FTTH offering] exists," Schrier said. In the Seattle area, that could be Bellevue, Kirkland, or Redmond, pockets of Verizon service leftover from the days in which its predecessor, GTE, was a competitive telecom provider in limited areas.

Schrier also believes that FTTH would enhance remote education, by providing a high-quality two-way channel for lectures and consultation. "Why do you drive or take the bus to the University of Washington to sit in a seminar of 7 or 8 people that could be conducted by video?" he asked.

Remote learning has been pushed for years, but the bandwidth to allow individuals at home to have high-quality two-way communications, as opposed to going to commuter distance-learning centers, is quite new.

Schrier is blunt about the potential of the current service providers for Seattle offering fiber to the home. "Qwest can't do it. Comcast has no reason to compete here." Broadstripe, currently in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, lacks the financial resources as well. Qwest's current strategy is bringing fiber to neighborhoods, and then offering higher-speed DSL over shorter distances. Comcast, the highest-speed local provider, can offer "up to 50 Mbps," but can't cheaply offer the 100 Mbps that Schrier would expect from an FTTH network.

The high-speed broadband would be coupled with telephone and television services as part of a triple-play, something Qwest can't provide. (Qwest partners with DirecTV.)

The idea of city—or country-built fiber isn't new, but many early systems suffered from high expectations, political fights, or expensive early equipment. The cost of the box in the house to which a fiber cable connects has dropped dramatically, while fiber speeds have increased and core network equipment costs are down, too.

Schrier also sees leveraging a larger city-wide fiber infrastructure for other projects, including plugging 700 MHz LTE (Long Term Evolution) devices into the fiber backbone. Public-safety departments can use a special, dedicated 700 MHz band with the same technology Verizon and AT&T are deploying commercially for their fourth-generation cellular networks. (See my Seattle Times article from this last Monday about 4G networks.)

In addition to public safety, Schrier wants to use a fiber network to tie in smart meters on every home to enable a smart grid: A utility network that can constantly monitor for outages, remotely control and view hardware and power lines, and fight electrical power theft. Most electric utilities are running nearly 19th century networks; Seattle City Light knows about outages today mostly because people call to report they have no power.

With smart meters, when meters go offline, the utility knows immediately, can plot the outages on a map, use line-mounted cameras in some cases to spot the problem, and dispatch crews precisely. Schrier said Seattle City Light has a $120-140 million project planned for a smart meter/grid update, and could get 50 percent of that funding from federal Department of Energy stimulus allotments.

Government is often criticized for eliminating competition, inefficiently providing private services, and removing the profit motive. However, market failures are often where governments are asked or begged to step in, and, when accomplished correctly, can provide new opportunities for private enterprise.

Schrier expresses no particular political ideology about the public/private divide. He'd be happy as punch, he said, if companies wanted to build out fiber. And he's hoping, potentially with separate stimulus money, to start a buildout of a single neighborhood as a test project—Beacon Hill leapt readily to his lips based on its poor connectivity, but nothing's been decided.

Schrier could see structuring a project in which a private firm built the network for the city, and multiple private companies managed offerings over the network that was built. In Tacoma, the power utility's Click Network provides television, but broadband is wholesaled through several home and business resellers.

The city's CTO doesn't want to have to build a network, but he will try to get one built if that's what's needed. "Once you have a level playing field like that, the competitors come out of the woodwork. But you have to have some sort of network" to get started.

If we leave our broadband—and thus competitive—future to the current incumbent providers, "Seattle will be the last to get that."

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