For Tacoma, Broadband Competition is Just a Click! Away
Monday, March 25, 2019
For Tacoma, Broadband Competition is Just a Click! Away
Equity and accessibility, as highlighted in our Tacoma 2025 strategic framework, are among the goals that drive policymaking in the City of Tacoma, and this is as true in the field of broadband as it is in every aspect of community life.
Our Tacoma 2025 strategic framework represents our community’s vision for the future and guides where the City of Tacoma is going – as both a local government organization and a community – and helps us direct our efforts and resources in ways that reflect our growing community’s evolving needs.
To meet our goals relating to equity and accessibility, we must work to ensure that all residents are treated equitably and have access to key services and facilities, as well as tools to secure financial stability. This includes increasing digital access in an equitable way. And, in an era of growing inequities, the City of Tacoma is engaged in an effort to ensure that our public broadband network, Click!, continues to support our community well for decades to come.
Click! is a city-owned cable and internet network built in the 1990s by the City of Tacoma’s municipal utility, Tacoma Public Utilities. It was built to serve internal utility communications needs and provide competitive cable and internet services to the public. Click! reaches throughout Tacoma and into some surrounding areas, and is renowned for its superb customer service, local staffing, and partnerships with private internet service providers who offer competing services over our network.
Unlike in so many American cities where monopoly or duopoly broadband is the norm, consumers in Tacoma have long had a choice among cable and internet providers, with all the pricing and affordability benefits that competition delivers. In the early years of Click!’s development, a Comcast spokesperson acknowledged to our local newspaper that Click!’s existence had led Comcast not only to invest in improving its network in Tacoma, but also to add local customer service staff. Similarly, CenturyLink has substantially upgraded its network in Tacoma to fiber-to-the-premises, a far more sophisticated infrastructure than it operates in our neighboring community of Seattle and most of its markets.
Early last year, we adopted community-focused policy goals for Click! that frame our vision for how this critical public asset should support our community. An extensive community stakeholder outreach process affirmed policy goals that addressed equity, openness, privacy, net neutrality, and affordability for low-income members of the community, with particular emphasis on competition and continued public ownership.
As a means of securing these goals – while reducing financial risk to the City of Tacoma and our utility – we chose to explore the potential of a public-private partnership in which a private entity would lease Click! from us, upgrade and maintain it, and offer services to the public that would compete with Comcast and CenturyLink. Our vision is to realize our goals through private operations, while the public maintains ownership and control of the communications network itself. In this way, we would use our infrastructure investment in Click! as leverage to incent a private partner to advance our goals, while creating an opportunity for this partner to build a robust cable and internet business in Tacoma.
We sought to test whether this vision can be achieved, and, after an extensive process of outreach to the private sector, including an open opportunity for potential partners to offer us ideas and proposals, we are now choosing between two negotiated term sheets with viable and capable potential partners. One term sheet is with Rainier Connect, a local, family-owned telephone and internet business that is more than 100 years old and that already provides internet services over Click!. The other is with Wave Broadband, which is part of one of the largest cable and internet companies in the country with some local operations.
In both cases, our private partners are committing to advance our following policy goals:
- Equity and low-income affordability. The term sheets obligate the private partners to serve the entirety of our community, with no “cherry-picking” of customers or more prosperous neighborhoods that is so common among ISPs in other cities. They will offer the same services, at the same pricing, to all within Click!’s service area—and will offer substantially reduced pricing to low-income consumers. Importantly, the low-cost product will not be lower value; unlike the “inclusion” products offered by some companies, which are very low bandwidth, our partners have committed to low costs for high-speed products—thus ensuring that our lower-income residents have all the education, health care, and other benefits of high-speed broadband, rather than having to settle for subpar services.
- Net neutrality and privacy. Both potential partners have agreed to robust guarantees of net neutrality and privacy, securing for our residents and businesses two critical public values that have been eliminated in federal policy in recent years. Regardless of what happens in Washington, DC, or our state capital of Olympia, Washington, regarding these two areas, the Tacoma community will have a net-neutral, privacy-respecting choice of internet service for the entirety of the partnership.
- Public ownership. We will retain ownership of Click!, even as we enable a private partner to operate the assets on a leased basis, for a period of 20 years, renewable for two 10-year terms. The length of the lease gives us certainty and stability, while enabling our partner to make substantial investment commitments—committing not only to upgrade our entire network to gigabit speeds over the next three years, but also to make ongoing investments in the network every year for the entire term of the partnership—and to give us ownership of the upgrades and improvements.
- Customer service. Both potential partners commit to robust, enforceable customer service standards for internet service. This is unprecedented anywhere in the country, and there is currently no federal or state framework for customer service enforcement related to data services. Our consumers will have a greater degree of protection than exists almost anywhere in the United States.
- Competition. Our selected partner will offer significant competition to Comcast and CenturyLink in Tacoma, thus achieving a level of competition – three robust wireline ISPs — that only a handful of American communities enjoy. And competition will be achieved not only through the partner’s opportunity to offer services in our community, but also through its willingness to accept limitations on sale or transfer. Both potential partners agree that they will not sell or transfer their interests in Click! to any company that already holds substantial market share in our community. And they agree that we will have the opportunity to oversee and approve any sale to any other entity.
With two options before us, the City Council and Utility Board are now engaged in an extensive process of seeking public input as we consider our next steps, which will likely focus on finalizing complete contracts with one of the potential partners. We have also been working to ensure that our Click! employees find new positions, either inside our utility or with our new partner. We are committed to doing our best for those who have worked for so long to make Click! a vital community asset.
My colleagues and I recognize that we, like all American cities, stand on the front lines of efforts to achieve equity and opportunity. And, as broadband internet becomes a more critical foundational element of our economy and a vital tool for democratic engagement, our efforts must extend to ensuring it is deployed in a way that supports our efforts. Our publicly-owned Click! network helps us achieve our goals, with the full and enthusiastic participation of our private partner. We are proud to stand on the cusp of securing a favorable outcome for our community for decades to come.
Mayor Victoria Woodards has called the “City of Destiny” her home for nearly her entire life. Before becoming Mayor in 2018, she served as a soldier for the U.S. Army, held non-profit leadership positions, and worked for seven years as an at-large member of the City Council. During her years on the Council, she launched the City’s Equity and Empowerment initiative which led to the establishment of its Office of Equity and Human Rights and championed paid sick leave legislation.
In Woodards’ first term as Mayor, she continues to be a supporter of equity issues while expanding her involvement in regional and national conversations on affordable housing, transportation, economic development, strengthening youth and families, public safety, growing local business, immigration, and the creation of family wage jobs. She has also worked to more fully engage the City’s youth in community decisions that impact them every day, by expanding Student Government Day and establishing a Youth Engagement Task Force.
Woodards currently serves as co-chair of the National League of Cities Council on Youth, Education, and Families, and was one of six mayors selected to participate in the National League of Cities Mayors’ Institute on Opioids. Some of her other leadership roles as Tacoma’s mayor include positions on the Puget Sound Regional Council Executive Board, South Sound 911 Policy Board, Tacoma-Pierce County Economic Development Board, Pierce Transit Board, Sound Transit Board, Foundation for Tacoma Students Board, and the Workforce Central Board.
Benton, a non-profit, operating foundation, believes that communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities to bridge our divides. Our goal is to bring open, affordable, high-capacity broadband to all people in the U.S. to ensure a thriving democracy.
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