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Seattle is the latest city to go around ISPs to get a gigabit network

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Seattle has teamed up with Gigabit Squared, a startup that wants to invest $200 million in building gigabit broadband networks in six college towns around the country, to build a gigabit network. Seattle, which has its own city-owed dark fiber network, and Gigabit Squared have signed a Memorandum of Understanding and a Letter of Intent that will allow Gigabit Squared to begin raising the capital needed to conduct engineering work and to build out the demonstration fiber network.

There are three parts to the network, a fiber-to-home element that will reach 50,000 homes in 12 Seattle neighborhoods. The network will also take advantage of point-to-point wireless, which companies such as WebPass are using, as well as offer some kind of mobile broadband service as well. From the release:

To provide initial coverage beyond the 12 demonstration neighborhoods, Gigabit Seattle intends to build a dedicated gigabit broadband wireless umbrella to cover Seattle providing point-to-point radio access up to one gigabit per second. This will be achieved by placing fiber transmitters on top of 38 buildings across Seattle. These transmitters can beam fiber internet to multifamily housing and offices across Seattle, even those outside the twelve demonstration neighborhoods, as long as they are in a line of sight. Internet service would be delivered to individual units within a building through existing wiring. This wireless coverage can provide network and Internet services to customers that do not have immediate access to fiber in the city.


This will be Gigabit Squared’s second fiber commitment under an arrangement it has with the Gig.U project headed by Blair Levin. Levin, who led the efforts to write the National Broadband Plan, formed Gig.U to make sure the U.S. maintains a competitive edge in broadband infrastructure. His idea is to build gigabit networks in U.S. college towns so students and researchers can keep up with the broadband speeds that other countries are developing.

Gigabit Squared’s first commitment was in Chicago, which it announced in October. Chicago had already announced a plan to dig trenches for fiber-to-the-home service as part of an upgrade to the city’s utilities, so Gigabit Squared probably saw a willing municipal partner and jumped.

What’s fascinating about all of these models is that they are bypassing traditional ISPs, such as the telcos and cable firms to build out city-specific programs where the municipality and a private company work together to build out the network. Google took this same approach in Kansas City when it chose that town for its Google Fiber deployment. And lest other municipalities feel left out (ahem, Austin!!) Google said this week that it would expand Google Fiber to more cities, while Gigabit Squared still has four more towns left if it follows its original plan.

24 Responses to “Seattle is the latest city to go around ISPs to get a gigabit network”

  1. Robert Syputa

    The concept is certainly not new – the involvement of local/county/regional/state government has sporadically become a topic of discussion for over 30 years. That stems from the way many areas have governed cable and other utilities franchise contracts: for example, cable companies in many areas were required to put in a certain number of strands of fiber optic as a condition of the franchise contracts to deploy cable runs. This stemmed from the need to connect government buildings and support educational, hospital, research and IT business interests. The thought process was foresighted but relatively an easy to sell proposition: so long as the high cost of digging up streets etc. or stinging overhead coaxial cables was needed in order to furnish cable or for other major projects including road, sewer or gas main construction, was required, the added cost of including a fiber optic cable was almost nothing.

    The Seattle Tri-county area used similar contracts which typically required about five strands/fiber-optic cable to be installed. This has included runs to schools, fire stations, and similar places where the majority of the strands remain ‘dark fiber’. This has been the situation for 10-20+ years for much of the fiber capacity.

    Seattle led Tri-counties study was conducted around 2003 that I attended: I suggested to the committee that they do something similar to what Seattle is pursuing with gig squared: build out the core ~350 mile fiber optic network into a FTTN, fiber to the node network. My suggestion appears different in that I would not be pursuing fiber to the home under the government contract. Instead, the approach would have built out FTTN to access ‘nodes’ comprised of industry standard termination and equipment enclosures. These would vary in size but generally are small termination enclosures located with provision for power and cabinet/rack co-location for fiber optic, Gigabit Ethernet (GiGe), or wireless broadband that would be provided under contract by competing companies or community BB groups.

    The goals would be to effectively put the fiber to use, expand it to a metro/regional grid to nodes within about 1,800 feet of every resident or business and to create an environment that would cause innovations to occur through the combination of the government sponsored ‘utility’ portion plus private and public delivery of wireless, fiber, GiGe or whatever other solution works best.

  2. I wish we in Austin could join Kansas City, Seattle, and the others expanding fiber.

    As we, according to our Governor, live in a “low-regulation”, “pro-business” state, one would be excused for assuming that Austin would be a prime location for building-out fiber to Austin homes. In the early to mid 2000’s, there was talk of Austin having its own city-wide, public wifi network. Naturally, the telco’s were not happy. And they knew the state legislators to talk to.

    One of our state legislatures most enjoyable recreational sports, when in session every two years, is to beat-up on those “weirdos” in Austin. To many in our very conservative Legislature, “Austin is a Socialist enclave in an otherwise fine Lone Star State.” Free wifi? No way! So create a law that makes such an effort very difficult for municipalities unless there is no imaginable way business could provide that service, though not necessarily for free. And even if the Legislature were to, in a moment of absent mindedness, allow Texas municipalities to bring enhanced wifi or fiber to their residents, the telcos always have Rick to veto such a legislative abomination.

    We are, after all, talking about a state legislature that in the 2011 session cut education spending by $4B or there abouts so that a nice, whopping $6.5B–$2.5B wasn’t enough–could be left in the state’s Rainy Day fund, and all in an effort to give the appearance of budgetary fortitude to our Gov, as he prepared to run (one of the shortest campaigns ever) for President. Free fiber? In Texas?

    So Stacey, I wish we could get fiber in Austin. But it will be long time before that ever happens, if it ever happens.

    • rjmcmahon00

      Hi Jim,

      Talk to Pulte or Centex about MUDs and see what they say. That’s the approach I’d take if I lived in the lonestar state. I

      What You Need To Know About Municipal Utility Districts

      What is a MUD?
      A Municipal Utility District (MUD) is a political subdivision of the State of Texas authorized by the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to provide water, sewage, drainage and other services within the MUD boundaries.

      How is a MUD created?
      A majority of property owners in the proposed district petitions the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality to create a MUD. The TCEQ evaluates the petition, holds a public hearing, and grants or denies the petition. After approval, the TCEQ appoints five temporary members to the MUD’s Board of Directors, until an election is called to elect permanent Board members, to confirm the MUD’s creation, and to authorize bonds and taxing authority for bond repayment.

      How does a MUD work?
      The publically elected Board of Directors manages and controls all of the affairs of the MUD subject to the continuing supervision of the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality. The Board establishes policies in the interest of its residents and utility customers. A MUD may adopt and enforce all necessary charges, fees and taxes in order to provide district facilities and service.

      Will my taxes be higher in a MUD?
      MUD tax rates, like all property tax rates, vary according to property values and debt requirements. MUD rates generally decline over time as the MUD is built out and operating and debt service costs are shared by more homeowners.

      How do MUDs provide for parks, pools and recreation faclities?
      In addition to their common functions of water and wastewater service, MUDs are legally empowered to engage in conservation, irrigation, electrical generation, firefighting, solid waste collection and disposal, and recreational activities (such as parks, swimming pools, and sports courts). A MUD can provide for itself the recreational amenities that are approved by the Board of Directors and funded by the District.

      What is a developer’s responsibility to MUDs?
      Developers must petition the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality to create a MUD. Developers are prohibited from serving or placing employees, business associates, or family members on the MUD Board of Directors. Developers must pay for or put up a letter of credit equal to 30% of the cost of subdivision utilities. This requirement ensures against “fly-by-night operators” who are not committed to the success of the MUD. The “30% rule” also offers protection to MUD residents in the event that a subdivision is not built according to schedule. Unless they are voting residents within a MUD, developers have no authority or control over the MUD’s Board of Directors. If they are voting members of a district, they have the same power to vote and attend Board metings as any other resident.

  3. rjmcmahon00

    Just more gibberish. If a group of people agree to tax themselves to provide infrastructure for themselves so be it. It the private sector can’t compete with that so be it. This is done for airports, seaports, hospitals, public sector utilities, sanitation, water, etc. all over the country.

  4. Brett Glass

    Seattle isn’t “going around” ISPs; it’s creating another one that’s subsidized by taxpayer money to compete unfairly with private enterprise. This harms businesses, kills jobs, and deters investment.

  5. Marc Canter


    Has anyone ever asked Mark Ansboury: “where is he getting his money from?” “How much he’s going to charge for this fiber access?” “What his business model is – and how he’ll justify spending ALL this money on such small deployments?”

    Inquiring minds wanna know!

  6. Glenn Fleishman

    “city-owed dark fiber network”: It’s not dark fiber, as the city actively uses it for its own purposes. Under Bill Schrier’s leadership (since moved on), Seattle built out an extensive municipal fiber network, and made deals with the county, state, and public schools to make use of it as well as its own purposes. Because Seattle’s electrical utility is part of the city (as opposed to a separately organized public or private entity), this made it easier to string fiber, and was one of the main arguments on cost for building a city-wide fiber network.

    Bill’s strategy was smart. With hundreds of miles of fiber in place with an ROI and purpose for municipal entities, including those beyond Seattle, he built an already-paid-for fiber core that can now be leveraged by private enterprise.

  7. Brett Glass

    Don’t you just love the way the article above calls the high speed wireless gear “fiber transmitters” rather than simply wireless? Stacey can’t bring herself to admit that wireless is superior, because — as a PR person for Google — her emphasis is required by her corporate masters to be on fiber, fiber, fiber. The truth: copper is 19th Century technology; fiber is 20th Century technology; wireless is 21st Century technology.

    • Greg Baker

      No, Brett, fiber is superior to wireless.

      Air as your communications medium is much more susceptible to noise. You will always have more throughput on fiber than wireless, unless you have more bandwidth, and spectrum is scarce. What do you think goes to the backhaul of most cell sites?

      Fiber isn’t susceptible to E&M interference allowing higher order modulation schemes. The line losses are also around .3 dB/km.

    • Glenn Fleishman

      That is one of the strangest things you’ve ever said, and I’ve been reading your articles and comments for nearly 20 years.

      Wireless spectrum, as policy currently defines it, has the density but not capacity to provide gigabit Internet in urban areas. In Wyoming, sure. In Seattle, no. The cost of building the number of point-to-point links (especially in a city covered with a dense treescape and hilly) can’t possible be justified relative to modern fibre drops.

      • Marc Canter

        Yo – I love your love of wireless – but one of the main reasons why they’re schlepping fiber – all the way into a single home or apartment – is to EXACTLY prove that wireless spectrum cannot TOUCH pure fiber deployment. They’re getting upwards of 900Mbps in those homes in Kansas City.

        You can keep talking your wireless dogma, and point out that there aren’t any services that provide data at faster than 10Mbps – and the 4G or better can deliver up to 50Mbps – but we’re talking an order of magnitude FASTER than what wireless can provide.

        And it’s available in Kansas city today – for $70 a month.

    • Fiber is easily capable of hundreds of gigabits but wireless is not, unless you have a carrier frequency above 100 GHz, and then I believe you run the risk of loss of signal caused by rain.

  8. I notice i3 America are also doing something similar with Sandynet,Oregon and Village of Gilberts. Illinois but they seem to be using the city waste water system for the core and trunk fiber. I also wonder if these are test beds for larger projects they may already be planning.

  9. What is really different from what went before? The last round of overbuilding for fiber to the home (or nearly to the home) seems to have stalled due to cost, have the costs really come down that much? Also, “beam fiber internet” is pure marketing speak, what radio technology are we talking about here?

    • Christopher Mitchell

      Cost is relative. The problem is that private providers cannot get a fast return on infrastructure, which is no surprise. Such investments typically take a long time to pay off because the cost of using infrastructure should be low enough to encourage universal access and new innovation.

      • “Cost is relative. The problem is that private providers cannot get a fast return on infrastructure, which is no surprise”

        That’s another way of saying “it’s not worth it” but this doesn’t stop governments from doing it anyway

      • I’m unsure of the technology, but in certain spectrum bands (at the upper end) over relatively short distances you can transmit a lot of capacity. They are point-to-point and require a line-of-sight, but it’s not magic. Usually these are deployed in dense cities and top of taller buildings, and Seattle is fairly flat outside of it’s downtown, but we’ll see what exactly the plans are.

    • Glenn Fleishman

      Sam, this isn’t “overbuilding.” As I note in another comment, Seattle cleverly built out fiber with its own money across the city for purely municipal purposes, and then leased that to other governmental entities (county, state, federal, and school). That fiber had its own budget and cost center and had to justify its existence with no potential future offsetting revenue.

      With a fiber core in place, a private firm can now leverage it without having to bear the cost (and the time delays) to build it, and focus entirely on the last-mile.

      “Beaming fiber internet”: there are a number of gigabit wireless technologies that rely on licensed frequencies and highly directional point-to-point and point-to-multipoint antennas. Towerstream has been deploying such for several years on a commercial basis. I haven’t heard of any attempts to do this for municipal residential deployments, and it’s a great test to see if it’s viable where fiber isn’t in place.

  10. Christopher Mitchell

    While this is certainly a better alternative than the status quo, the benefits of the Bristol, Chattanooga, Lafayette, and other municipal network result not just from the technology, but more significantly because the network is accountable to the community because the community owns it. Our problem with broadband is not with technology — it is because the networks are too often accountable to entities outside the community — Wall Street most notably.

    If Seattle does not actually own this network, it will likely solve its problems temporarily, but who knows who will own it in 5-10 years? And what prices will it charge when its only competition is Comcast (CenturyLink will likely fade away).