Muni broadband wins voters' hearts in Colorado but not Seattle

6 November 2013 by Steve Blum
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Filling up in Colorado, half empty and still deflating in Seattle.

Seattle voters yesterday turfed out mayor Mike McGinn, their broadband cheerleader-in-chief, giving the job to state senator Ed Murray by a preliminary margin of 56% to 43%. It was a different story in the Rocky Mountain town of Longmont, where residents overwhelmingly approved a fiber-to-the-home bond measure, 68% to 32%.

FTTH was a prominent McGinn campaign promise, both this year and in 2009, when he was elected mayor. The Seattle Times ripped him back in July for not delivering, while a McGinn-backed group – Gigabit Seattle – talked up its plans to build fiber throughout the city. And talk is pretty much all it’s done. Nearly a year since the project was launched, Gigabit Seattle hasn’t raised the money it needs even for its pilot project, which isn’t surprising given its faith-based financing model.

Murray, on the other hand, downplayed broadband during his campaign, which was enough to earn him at least $12,000 in donations from Comcast, an incumbent service provider in Seattle and a bare-knuckle political brawler when its business interests are threatened. There were bigger issues in the Seattle mayoral race, but McGinn’s response to his broadband failures was to turn up the hype rather than turn on the work, making it an easily grasped symbol of his term in office.

By contrast, the muni FTTH campaign in Longmont was poker-faced. The city showed just a couple of cards on the table, giving voters a summary powerpoint presentation and a promotional brochure rather than a bona fide business plan. They’ll get to see it after the fact, though. To sell the bonds, the city is required to publish detailed disclosures about its new broadband business and its existing electric utility. Both are important because if FTTH cash flow falls short, bond payment charges will be tacked on to residents’ electric bills.

The lop-sided result in Longmont shows that whether or not they completely understand the risk, voters enthusiastically accept it. Because they’re putting real money on the table, it’s very likely an FTTH system will be built. That’s not what I expect for Gigabit Seattle, which relies on hope and hype rather than cash.