Seattle Internet for All Report Offers Good Data But No Radical Solutions

Seattle, Washington sits at the technology epicenter of the Pacific Northwest, and its residents have historically enjoyed better wireline Internet access options than many Americans across the country. A new report, Seattle Internet for All [pdf], provides a wealth of analysis which identifies those remaining in the city who struggle to get online. And while it outlines a detailed set of steps the city can do to reach the 5% or so of residents who report not having any subscription, most of them remain small, with no bold strategies offered to solve the connectivity gap once and for all.

The report comes as a result of the Internet for All Resolution passed by the city council in July in order to address digital divide amplified by the ongoing pandemic. While the city has been successful in increasing Internet access over the last five years, there are important income- and race-based gaps that still need to be fixed. Currently, the report says, 17,575 households with 37,365 residents sit on the other side of the adoption gap, and it concludes that the majority of the disparity is driven by affordability and a lack of digital skills.

Summary of Findings

The report argues that Seattle remains one of the most connected cities in the country, with 93% of the city having access to gigabit broadband from one or more Internet Service Providers (ISPs); according to the FCC Form 477 data (which itself overstates competition) that number sits at 75%, but in either case it's worth noting that for Comcast and Wave subscribers this will be asymmetric gigabit with far slower upload speeds. 

The report finds that 88% of households currently pay for wireline subscriptions, while 4-7% use cellular or free options to get online. But 5% report not having any Internet access at all, and these residents are concentrated around particular areas: South Central Seattle (Pioneer Square, Yesler Terrace, and International District), South Seattle (New Holly, Rainier Valley, and Beacon Hill), West Seattle (High Point and South Park, downtown, and Lake City.

The Internet for All report breaks down adoption data in a host of helpful ways, and outlines the characteristics most likely to factor into those households that choose not to connect. Of those not subscribing to access, they include:

  • 21% of households earning under $25,000 year.
  • 22% of Seattle Housing Authority households.
  • 20% of those with a high school degree or less.
  • 15% of those households with a member living with a disability.
  • 10% where the primary language is other than English.

For those who don’t subscribe, 61% cite cost as the primary factor, with 20% saying they don’t have a device.

The report also notes that though there are six low-cost programs available for less than $20/month to residents (from Comcast, Wave, PCs for People, Atlas Networks, and T-Mobile through third party), 53% of those surveyed responded that they didn’t know about low-income programs at all. In fact, less than a quarter of those who qualify for low-cost Internet access programs in Seattle actually use them. 

School children also remain a focus of the study. Between classrooms closing last spring and the first month of the new school year, Seattle Public Schools gave out 26,000 devices and 17,000 hotspots. The report finds that among the 46,000 students in the system at least 8,800 have inadequate or no access for remote learning. Another barrier to success, particularly for students, is the 25/3 Mbps (Megabits per second) speed offered in low-income plans, which the report says is insufficient. It identifies 50-100 Mbps as the minimum threshold for connections moving forward. Mayor Jenny Durkan said of the effort:

We know that access to technology is a race and social justice issue, and the pandemic has further magnified the digital inequities with many in our community lacking the technology and devices need for school or work. The Internet for All Initiative provides the City of Seattle a new roadmap and tangible action plan to close the digital divide and meaningfully increase access to both Wi-Fi and devices at this critical time for our City.

Action Plan

The report offers a three-phase plan of action, informed and driven by two city economic development office reports published in the last six months: “Essential Employability Skills: Digital Literacy” (March 2020) [pdf] and “COVID-19 and the Future of Work” (July 2020) [pdf]. The two documents argue that the relative percentage of jobs which require basic and advanced digital literacy will steadily rise in the future, and jobs will continue to go remote (as we’ve seen during the pandemic). Both reports also show the outsized disparities and impacts for communities of color for both of these trends.

At its core, the Internet for All report aims at affordability, outreach, and hardware programs to resolve the broadband gap in the city. The plan (to be complete by 2023) will achieve these goals with activities that:

  • Increase awareness and adoption of low-cost Internet programs and devices.
  • Expand no or low-cost connectivity options in targeted areas of the city.
  • Partner with organizations to deliver culturally relevant digital inclusion programs.
  • Pursue private sector and philanthropic funding.
  • Champion legislation and policies to advance universal Internet access and adoption.
  • Strengthen regional collaboration by forming an Internet for All Coalition.
  • Advocate to ensure that Internet Service Provider (ISP) offerings meet residents’ needs.
  • Examine new technologies to ensure best-in-class Internet infrastructure and consumer choices.

To be successful, city leaders and stakeholders will seek to bring together and coordinate county, state, public school, community, and nonprofit work. It outlines efforts to increase the footprint of, access to, and awareness of free, public wireless options through Seattle Public Schools, the city, and the public library via existing fiber assets owned by Seattle City Light, Seattle Public Utilities, and the Seattle Department of Transportation. 

It notes that a revised dig once policy to include fiber and conduit, and an updated right-of-way (ROI) plan coming in November will also speed efforts. It suggests the utility of a one-stop enrollment and verification portal for all low-income Internet access programs by providers (though a plan for getting unconnected residents online in order to access the portal in the first place remains absent). It outlines a plan to support the University of Washington’s Local Connectivity Lab in its efforts to create a Citizens’ Band Radio Service (CBRS)-based Seattle Community Cellular Network. It calls for an exploration for what it would to extend existing fiber infrastructure to low-income housing locations or use  the latter as the basis of a fixed wireless network to provide service to targeted areas. And it suggests the adoption of a digital navigator model to reach communities and residents where they are.

Collectively, these solutions offer a diverse, coherent, and targeted plan to bridging the adoption gap, but only one component makes use of city-owned assets. Among the report’s most interesting solutions are a suggestion to explore network virtualization in order to let retail providers operate on the roughly 740 miles of existing water and electric fiber infrastructure and provide residential service — a model familiar to Ammon, Idaho.

No Municipal Broadband

The report does not support the creation of a municipally owned fiber network, citing the presence of Comcast, CenturyLink, and Wave providing gigabit service to portions of the city as creating too competitive an environment. In part this determination is based on a 2015 RFP which idenitified high capital expenditure costs and the presence of existing options, but it also incorrectly relies upon a University of Pennsylvania study which, despite basic factual problems and erroneous analysis, has been used to attack the success of existing and cast doubt upon potential municipally owned networks.

One subset of the city’s unconnected population not explored fully in the report are the 20% who said they didn’t have the credit or deposit requirements for access. Wilson, NC’s municipally operated Greenlight network has a flexible payment program that allows residents to load up funds without credit checks or deposits. In addition, the report identified more than a third of those with insecure housing having no access, highlighting the broadband gap as one problem among the host of other equity issues cities have to face.

Seattle’s Internet for All report is both comprehensive and nuanced, and if followed is likely to make headway in solving the broadband adoption gap identified. What it doesn’t do is call on city leaders to take bold steps to quickly connect the tens of thousands of city residents with no access today. Certainly local circumstances play a role in the options cities have, especially during the pandemic; unlike Chattanooga, Seattle doesn’t have a municipal fiber utility it can call upon to form the basis of a partnership to close the digital divide. But the decisions we make today impact the future, and closing the digital divide should remain at the core of our efforts to govern.

Download the full report below.

Header image courtesy of Washington State Department of Transportation CC BY-NC-ND 2.0