City of Seattle

In a victory for broadband providers (as well as city council member Bruce Harrell and Mayor Ed Murray, who have long been pushing for reforms to city broadband policy), the council's transportation committee voted unanimously today to overturn a rule that allows a minority of neighborhood land owners to effectively veto any new cable above-ground utility box in a public planting strip within 100 feet of their property. 

Under the old rule,  Internet providers like Centurylink had to get the written approval of at least 60 percent of nearby land owners before they could put a cable box in a publicly owned planting strip. Opponents of the old rule estimated that it prevented around 60 utility boxes from being located on planting strips between 2009 and 2011, preventing as many as 20,000 households and businesses from getting "next-generation" broadband service.

Some neighbors have opposed the boxes because they say they're unsightly and attract graffiti; other opponents of the change have characterized the new rules as a giveaway to big existing Internet providers.

Joining Murray and Harrell on the other side of the debate, activists with Upping Technology for Underserved Neighborhoods (UPTUN) have argued that eliminating the neighbor veto clause will enable companies to roll out faster, more reliable Internet service in underserved areas like Beacon Hill, and encourage companies like Google to build new high-speed networks here. 

However, like the old rules, the legislation adopted by the committee today still requires broadband companies to jump through several hoops if they want to build utility boxes bigger than 36 inches tall, including a public notice to adjacent property owners, "visual mitigation screening" such as vinyl wraps or murals to make the boxes less obtrusive, and a written report demonstrating that the company has considered every conceivable alternative to an above-ground box. Because the rules only apply to cabinets that are more than three feet tall, council and SDOT staff have characterized the change as an "incentive" to build smaller cabinets.

The legislation does come with an escape clause: It gives the city transportation director the right to waive any of the rules "if the proposed project deploys enhanced communication service that provides a new service or upgrades a similar service currently provided in the proposed project area and the proposed at-grade project design, in the Director's judgment, minimizes the visual impacts to the public place and results in significantly fewer cabinet installations in the project area."

UPTUN's Robert Kangas is enthusiastic about the changes. 

"Assuming this gets passed when this goes to the full-council next week, this is a great first step," Kangas says. "It removes some of the burdensome regulatory barriers that were in place that scared Google Fiber away and it will allow CenturyLink to finally build out their infrastructure and compete directly with the incumbent cable providers," like Comcast. 

And, addressing neighbors' concerns that the utility boxes are ugly and obtrusive, Kangas retorts that neighborhoods that get new broadband cabinets could actually see their property values increase, "since these neighborhoods will become more attractive with the broadband service upgrade."

We have a call out to Harrell.




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