Like dozens of other cities across the country, Seattle is currently in the midst of a mayoral race. But unlike some others, this election has drawn the attention of Big Telecom, with CenturyLink and Comcast forking over more than $50,000 combined to a political action committee that's campaigning for one candidate: former US Attorney Jenny Durkan.
Though there could be lots of motivations for these companies to contribute to the PAC, local digital divide activists say it's no coincidence that the candidate Big Telecom is rallying behind is the one who doesn't believe a municipal broadband network—or "muninet"—is feasible.
"Big Telecom doesn't really have the most creative responses [to a municipal network proposal]," said Devin Glaser, the policy and political director for Upgrade Seattle, a municipal broadband advocacy group. "But what they do is put lots and lots of money behind people who find reasons to dislike the idea."
About 15 percent of Seattleites don't have access to the internet, according to the city's most recent survey. Though there's plenty of infrastructure, the cost is prohibitive for many people. That's why Seattle has been mulling over the idea of a municipal broadband network—which would deliver high-speed internet as a public utility, like electricity—for decades. But the two mayoral candidates have very different stances on whether such a network is the right idea.
Read more: The Town That Had Free Gigabit Internet
Durkan has stated that while she's not against a muninet in theory, she thinks the cost is too excessive, and has proposed building out free public Wi-Fi instead. Her opponent Cary Moon, an urban planner, has made a municipal broadband network a central part of her platform, saying it's an "equity issue and a privacy issue."
In 2015, the City commissioned a study to determine how much it would cost to build out a municipal gigabit fiber network. That study estimated the cost would be between $480 million and $665 million, and would need at least 43 percent of residents to fork over $75 a month for the service in order to break even. This is a hefty sum for a city that is also in the midst of other challenges, including an affordable housing crisis. However, the study also considered some other funding models, such as using property taxes to subsidize the buildout for a network that would cost just $45 per month. The study concluded that a muninet in Seattle could be a self-sustaining service (i.e. it would break even but not generate revenue for the City coffers) after a few years.
But as we've seen in other cities that have shirked Big Telecom to build their own public utility broadband, the traditional oligopoly isn't a fan of the government stepping on their turf. That's why advocates of a muninet, like Glaser, were unsurprised to find Comcast and CenturyLink had contributed more than $50,000 to the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce's PAC, which has endorsed Durkan and funded pro-Durkan ads. Amazon and Vulcan—a Seattle-based conglomerate that, among other ventures, owns millions of dollars worth of wireless spectrum—have also contributed more than $400,000 to the PAC.
Durkan's team emphasized that these companies have not contributed directly to her campaign, and in fact she has received much of her funding from individual donors.
"Jenny is the only candidate in the race who is running a grassroots campaign with volunteers knocking on doors, calling voters, and funding her campaign with over 3,400 individual donors," said Stephanie Formas, a spokesperson for Durkan. "She has more individual contributors than any candidate who has run in Seattle because people across the Seattle are looking for a progressive leader who can get things done."
Seattle is heading to the polls on November 7, when we'll find out whether Big Telecom got its money's worth this time around.
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