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Digital Discrimination

By Glenn Fleishman October 1, 2009


[Editor's Note: Following up on his interview with Bill Schrier, Seattle's tech czar, yesterday (which got into the idea of citywide broadband), TechNerd Glenn Fleishman looks at how the ugly virus of 20th-Century redlining is infecting the 21st.]

The legacy of Seattle redlining and property covenants has come home to roost in the 21st century in the form of bad access to broadband.

While it also true in other communities that poor neighborhoods and those historically dominated by racial and ethnic minorities have worse Internet service, in most of those cities both rich and poor, white and black have pockets or neighborhoods of crummy wire and providers. You can be quite rich in Philadelphia and still not be able to get a 21st-century broadband wire, for instance."

Not so in Seattle. Sure, we can all cite examples of areas around the city with poor service, but nothing is as bad as what is found generally across Beacon Hill and the Central District, which has a separate cable that's kept those neighborhoods far behind their peers. The deregulated nature of broadband—only the FCC can intervene, not local or state government—means that only changes at a federal level can force improvements.

Cable TV providers are licensed by franchise boards, of which thousands exist nationwide. The franchise boards provide access to public rights of way typically in exchange for a quasi-tax, like 5 percent of revenue, and specific givebacks, like a cable company funding public access TV and providing channels of public information and government hearing broadcasts.

But three branches of federal government--congress, courts, and the FCC--have said that broadband can't be considered as part of the cable TV franchise. It's an information service. Likewise, public telecom commissions that govern the universal and fair availability of a dial tone from registered telephone companies like Qwest also cannot consider broadband as part of the package. The FCC is the only agency that has the right to deal with this.

How does this tie in with the C.D. and beyond? Comcast has most of the cable franchise in Seattle--with the exception of the C.D. and Beacon Hill. Broadstripe, a firm currently in bankruptcy, is the 3rd or 4th or maybe 5th successive holder of the C.D.--the "Central Cable Television Franchise District."

It extends very roughly from I5 in the West to 31st in the east and Madison or Spring in a wide swath. From 90, another district juts in, and service south of 90 runs in a triangle from 90 at the north, Rainier at the west to south, and 31st on the east. On the east side of I5, the district runs from I90 south bounded by 16th AveS until it hits Beacon Ave S all the way down south of Othello to Benefit St. (There's a map you can download from the city's franchise site.)

Reports indicate that Broadstripe's service is atrocious. Where Comcast pulled fiber into neighborhoods long ago, and is in the middle of its DOCSIS 3.0 upgrade (a new standard for vastly faster broadband) and its digital transition (no more analog signals over cable to increase channels for broadband use), it's unclear where Broadstripe stands. Nationally, it's working in improving speeds, but poor infrastructure means that you can't simply push more bits over. Potentially tens of millions of dollars need to be spent in all aspects of the system to meet Comcast performance in the rest of the city.

Qwest is no better. DSL works by running data over regular phone lines, and suffer from distance from central offices and old wiring that's poorly insulated or degraded over time. Beacon Hill residents report poor Qwest speeds, likely due to both factors.

I'm not accusing any company today (or in the last couple of decades) of active neglect. Rather, it's all about decisions made decades ago about where to spend money to put wire in the ground, and who to serve that has led directly to this situation today.

As noted in my interview with Seattle's chief technology officer, Beacon Hill is dead square on the city's radar as a potential testbed for building a fiber-optic to the home network, one that would catapult the have-nots into Japanese levels of Internet and TV connectivity.

I'm looking for insight from the neighborhood. Do you live in Beacon Hill, the C.D., or surrounding areas and have been frustrating with broadband? Comment below. Tell us what you have, what you get, and what you've tried to do. Are you planning to move because of this, because you can't work at all from home or stay up on office issues? Does it affect your business? Let us know.
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