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Fiber optic cable connections. Photo by Thomas Hawk.

Fiber optic cable connections. Photo by Thomas Hawk.


City Of Seattle And UW Announce Project To Bring Fiber Optic Cable To Homes

Deborah Wang

Seattle is trying to bring faster broadband service to people's homes. Monday, the city announced it would open up access to its own fiber optic cable network in two city neighborhoods. The city is looking for a private company that will connect the public network to homes. It's part of a pilot program with the University of Washington. The city hopes it can be replicated in other neighborhoods. KUOW's Deborah Wang has more.


Here's the problem according to Ed Lazowska — he is the Bill and Melinda Gates chair in computer science and engineering at the University of Washington. Lazowska says there are some places in the city where you can get fast broadband; places like the University of Washington, big public and private institutions, and at major companies that can pay a lot of money for fiber optic connections.

But what about your average home in your average Seattle neighborhood? Lazowska says not so much. Take his neighborhood in Ballard. He says the fastest download speeds available from his cable provider are about 15 megabits per second.

Lazowska: "You know, it's a level of service that is today's generation of broadband, not the next generation of broadband. The problem is that in other nations, people have access to 10 or 100 times the bandwidth that I have access to."

In Seattle, most homes don't have direct access to a fiber optic network. They are connected to it with copper cable that gives consumers much slower speeds and limited interactivity.

Lazowska says the reason the US is behind other nations is money. It's expensive to run fiber optic cable to people's homes. In many countries, governments pay for it.

So, Seattle is now proposing a way to essentially share those costs. It is offering up its own public fiber optic network in two neighborhoods to companies that are interested in connecting that network to people's homes.

Seattle owns more than 500 miles of fiber optic cable that connect public institutions in the city. It's the oldest municipal fiber optic network in the country, and has never been used commercially.

Ed Lazowska says it may be a way to encourage private companies to make bigger investments in fiber optics.

Lazowska: "Some private party, it may be telecommunications company, it may be a Microsoft or a Google, who will see the value of this kind of investment, and then we just push these forward and hope that we can flip the nation. And it's just an experiment, but it's not happening given today's incentive system."

The project is part of a nationwide effort called Gig.U. It involves 37 universities, including the University of Washington.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn says if it works out, it could become a model for bringing broadband to homes around the city.

McGinn: "You know, somebody at home could tap into their medical records, or get imaging, or have a type of conferencing. But it also might be somebody at home, you know, the next Bill Gates if we're lucky, or maybe just another really smart person, who is coming up with the next business idea. 'Cause the fact of the matter is, we still believe in Seattle that somebody could start the next big thing in their garage."

The region's major cable provider, Comcast, says it's too early to comment on the project, but Comcast issued a statement saying that it has built and maintains hundreds of miles of fiber optic lines in Seattle, and it spends tens of millions of dollars each year expanding its network to businesses and going deeper into neighborhoods.

I'm Deborah Wang, KUOW News.

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