To nimby or not to nimby is the dilemma for Seattle and Portland broadband upgrades

4 April 2014 by Steve Blum
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Not every emerald city has a wizard to rely on.

Broadband doesn’t arrive by magic. It needs stuff. Like poles and towers and boxes that don’t necessarily match the neighborhood decor. That simple fact is often lost on nimby homeowners who want to be able to watch four channels of Netflix HD movies at once, but don’t want a small, green box planted anywhere nearby.

Seattle and Portland are two cities where it’s difficult, if not impossible, to install telecoms street furniture. But that might be changing.

Following the midnight exit of Gigabit Seattle, the city’s new mayor wants to make it easier for real companies to upgrade infrastructure. So he’s proposing to end a requirement that broadband providers in general, and CenturyLink in particular, get permission from homeowners before installing boxes in nearby public right of ways. The need to go through hundreds of separate negotiations has effectively blocked broadband improvements. Mayor Ed Murray plans to ask the city council to roll back the individual veto it gave homeowners in 2009, a move CenturyLink claims scuppered 60 upgrade projects affecting 21,000 homes.

Portland is one of the 34 cities blessed by Google and allowed to compete to be on its fiber-to-the-home list. To stay in the running, cities have been told to hand in a fiber-ready checklist by next month. One of the items – easy access to public right of ways for equipment cabinets – is causing consternation in Portland, which currently doesn’t allow them (h/t to Karl Bode at DSL Reports for the pointer). But the city council will consider changing its policy and, perhaps, adopting Google’s standard terms, as San Antonio did.

Public policy debates in San Francisco and Overland Park, Kansas can easily be hijacked by loud, self-absorbed interests. Not coincidentally, those two cities have sunk to the bottom of the Google Fiber priority list, and other broadband upgrade projects have been stalled. Seattle and Portland, though, still have a choice.