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Originally published Wednesday, February 5, 2014 at 8:21 AM

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Guest: Why Seattle does not need to build a broadband network

The recent collapse of the City of Seattle’s Gigabit Squared effort to expand high-speed fiber to homes has many people wringing their hands on what to do next, writes guest columnist Ron Main.

Special to The Times

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HIGH-speed broadband is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity — for businesses looking to increase efficiencies or residents needing access to jobs, education or entertainment.

The recent collapse of the City of Seattle’s effort to expand high-speed fiber to homes has many people wringing their hands on what to do next. In January, Mayor Ed Murray said the city’s partner, Gigabit Squared, was having trouble securing funding and the company owed the city $52,250. The mayor said he was exploring a new fiber strategy.

Here’s some breaking news: Seattle already has broadband.

Government, hospitals, schools, libraries, businesses and the citizens of Seattle can access high-speed Internet capable of transmitting massive amounts of data or the latest applications.

“Fiber to the home” is a great campaign slogan, but it’s not sought by most people.

For example, Comcast offers a 105 megabits-per-second (Mbps) download speed across its entire service area in Seattle and Washington state. Despite this widespread availability of high-speed broadband, residential use of this service is low. Only 5 percent of residents currently subscribe to this service, according to the company.

The fact is residential demand for speeds greater than what is now available is very limited. Most people take service around 20 Mbps to 50 Mbps. This is fast enough for typical residential uses, from streaming movies and working from home to Skyping with family. Higher speeds of 1 to 10 gigabit-per-second service are available to local businesses and large institutions.

This raises a key question: Is there a business case to spend hundreds of millions of dollars expanding fiber to homes?

This doesn’t mean we’re raising the mission accomplished banner on broadband in Seattle. New technologies will require ongoing improvements to the city’s telecommunications infrastructure.

When high-speed Internet was first launched in Seattle in the 1990s, the fastest speed available was about 1 Mbps. Since then providers have been doubling the speeds available every few years. Now residents have access to 105 Mbps with even faster speeds on the horizon.

The reality is a broadband network is a dynamic entity that requires constant investment. In 2013, the telecommunications industry collectively invested more than $100 million in maintaining and expanding its broadband networks in Seattle. We expect that pace of investment to continue over the next five years.

The hard truth is the Gigabit deal was a pipe dream without a business plan. Long-term, sustainable investments in broadband require a strong partnership between the city and companies with the experience, local knowledge, financial capability and proven track records of success.

Local broadband companies are committed to the vision of broadband for everyone. But we can’t do it alone. We need local jurisdictions’ help through leadership and making common sense changes to regulations that stifle investment, such as easier permitting and access to rights of way and poles.

It is imperative local governments and providers work together to ensure broadband is affordable and available at speeds that will enable Seattle and neighboring communities to prosper.

New investments in Pioneer Square are a recent example. The city leased excess conduit capacity to enable Comcast to install fiber to support a growing high-tech startup cluster in the neighborhood.

Moreover, private industry has also introduced successful programs to promote broadband adoption among low-income families with special offerings for families with children enrolled in the national free and reduced lunch program.

Nationally, Comcast’s version of this program, Internet Essentials, has resulted in more than 1 million people having access to the Internet at home who otherwise would have gone without. In Washington state, 9,000 households have access to the program.

Technological advances, from streaming videos to the latest wireless apps, show a growing appetite for ever-increasing broadband speeds. While it’s hard to predict where technology will be in 20 years, you can be certain that the need for greater data transmission speeds will only increase. Our association’s companies are committed to continuing our substantial investment in this area.

Seattle’s efforts to foster broadband deployment should be commended. Local providers are ready and willing to partner with the mayor, City Council and community. Working together, we’ve made Seattle one of the most wired cities in the country and home to world-class companies.

Let’s build on this track record of success going forward.

Ron Main is executive director of the Broadband Communications Association of Washington. Comcast is a member of the association.

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