Is internet access a social justice issue?

Most Seattleites don't have a lot of choice when it comes to internet service provider. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
Most Seattleites don’t have a lot of choice when it comes to internet service provider. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

Is internet access a social justice issue?

Devin Glaser, The Policy and political director of Upgrade Seattle, believes it is. For the past two years Upgrade Seattle has spearheaded the campaign to bring municipal broadband to Seattle.

“We kind of all gathered together recognizing that we knew we were getting a raw deal,” said Glaser, citing the ever rising cost of internet, as well as the disparity in coverage from neighborhood to neighborhood. “It became really important to make sure that everybody had equal access and right now that’s not the case. It’s very… kind of just on a whim… if you happen to have strong connections or not, based on where you live now and also what you can afford.”

Despite being a well-resourced city, known for being leaders in the tech industry, 15% of Seattle households, roughly 93,000, remain without internet. Glaser contends that the majority of these households can be found in historically marginalized communities, and that access to internet, as well as internet speeds, are lower proportionate to whether or not you live in a neighborhood that was traditionally redlined.

“Basically across demographics you see: rich people have access to internet, lower-income people do not, white people tend to have more access to internet, people of color do not, immigrants and people with language issues happen to have lower access to internet,” said Glaser.

More than just Facebook and Netflix, the internet has become essential to everything from completing school assignments to applying for jobs and paying bills efficiently. Currently the major providers do offer low-income options, but the quality of these services is not the same.

“I think the idea behind them may be noble, but they’re more like a press release practice than actual change,” says Glaser.

Glaser compares Comcast’s Internet Essentials and Century Link’s Internet Basics to the low-income program offered through Seattle City Light.  “There are some hurdles to signing up, but it’s much easier than Comcast or Century Link and then your electricity is the same. You don’t get like, low-wattage electricity. You don’t get outtages at certain times.

In order to qualify for Internet Essentials you must have a child who is on the free or reduced lunch program at school and you can’t have had internet within the last three months. And the internet you receive is much slower than the most basic package offered.

“If they had a legitimate competitor their prices would immediately come down.”

“Providing cheaper services, but also lower quality services is actually creating a digital fast lane and a digital slow lane,” says Glaser. “And coming up in the world, getting more education, applying for jobs, all these things really require having equal access to services.”

Walter Neary, Senior Director of Communications for Comcast, says that Internet Essentials is meeting a need in the community. “In terms of the speed I don’t know off the top of my head what the speed is, but we have a number of testimonials from people who have been able to look for jobs and do homework on it. But it’s always something we’re evaluating.”

Neary says that as the program has evolved they’ve done what they can to expand.

“We recently began to cover folks in public housing whether they had kids or not and also people in state housing, so the program has been expanding gradually,” he explained. “The program has been designed for folks that do not have internet now, and has connected more than 35,000 families around the state.”

Free internet for non-profits?

Comcast has also partnered with the City of Seattle to offer free internet to non-profits. Though 200 non-profits are said to be receiving this service, I wasn’t able to track down anyone from those organizations. But I did recently have first-hand experience through the non-profit I work for.

I’m the program manager for Young Women Empowered (Y-WE), a youth leadership program serving young women ages 13-18. When our office moved to El Centro de la Raza in Beacon Hill this August, we applied and were approved to receive free internet. But by October Comcast had still not fulfilled their part of the bargain.

“It was an extremely confusing process and I just gave up,” Jamie Rose Edwards co-director of Y-WE stated. “I had good communication with somebody at the City who was helping me through the application process, filled out what was a very extensive application from the City to prove that we were eligible. They communicated to me by phone that we had been approved.”

Despite being approved the internet never arrived.

“It was extraordinarily frustrating. Our entire staff chose to work from home or from coffee shops or the library because we had access to internet there,” said Edwards. “We couldn’t get very much done. We couldn’t work efficiently without internet.”

Though Comcast donated $185,000 to get el Centro de la Raza “wired” up, the “free” internet in the building itself was insufficient. With eight of us working in the office, we would often get bumped off and not be able to send correspondence in a timely many. The internet became so unreliable that as a staff we decided it would be better to just break down and pay in order to receive consistent service.

After this experience we were reluctant to choose Comcast as a provider, but we found that in Beacon Hill, there was little other choice.

The Slow Internet Walk

Local writer, comedian and talk show host Brett Hamil is also fed up with Comcast.

Hamil, together with a collective of other dissatisfied customers is hosting a “Slow Internet Walk” protest this Wednesday at noon. Protestors will march (very slowly) from Comcast to City Hall to express outrage over the newly implemented data caps, the inequitable distribution of internet speeds and in general the “anti-consumer” business practices.

“I mean Comcast has some incredibly shifty business practices. They’re getting sued for $150 million dollars by Washington State Attorney General Ferguson, that happened this year,” said Hamil. “So everyone knows they have sleazy business practices. But I thought it would be worthwhile to be out there on the streets acknowledging that, and also demanding that our elected officials push for municipal broadband.”

Is municipal broadband a viable solution?

Municipal broadband would mean taking the internet and turning it into a City owned and operated public utility. Private companies like Comcast and Century Link would still be able to operate, but they would no longer be monopolies.

“If they had a legitimate competitor their prices would immediately come down,” says Hamil. Hamil first began researching better internet options when he moved to Beacon Hill. “And I just started researching trying to figure out why my internet was so bad and why these monopolies were allowed to provide such shoddy service.”

The city of Seattle has been contemplating what to do about internet since 1996 when they determined they could reduce their own operating costs by installing fiber optics cables, though they were not intended for public use.

“There is actually miles and miles of broadband wire under the city right now,” says Hamil. Creating a municipal broadband would require building infrastructure, but we wouldn’t be starting entirely from scratch.

In 2007, the City commissioned a study by CCG Consulting to assess the feasibility. The study estimated that it would cost $440-850 million to make this into a reality, which Mayor Murray dismissed as being cost prohibitive.

“A multinational conglomerate should not have the influence on our local politics that they are.”

According the Washington Post, Murray received substantial contributions to his campaign from Comcast, who would stand to lose a lot of money if municipal broadband were to come to fruition.

“A multinational conglomerate should not have the influence on our local politics that they are,” says Hamil.

Despite Murray’s opposition to municipal broadband, the City Council has not given up on the idea. During the march Hamil and others plan to thank Council members Kshama Sawant, Mike O’Brien, Rob Johnson and Lisa Herbold for taking the lead on raising this issues for a second assessment.

“Our budget amendment introduced today is for $300,000 — $170k for a study by an outside firm and $130k as a price estimate for one full time employee’s time to work on it. This will pay for a municipal broadband 10 year implementation plan — essentially the next step after last year’s feasibility study,” says Glaser.

Glaser cites the success stories in two smaller cities Chattanooga, Tennessee and Cedar Falls, Iowa.

“If you look at like the highest speed of connection throughout the country they’re in tiny towns like Cedar Falls Iowa, Chattanooga, etc,” says Glaser. “So we already know its is possible.”

Glaser contends that while there would definitely be some upfront costs, that in the long run it would save us money:

“It could actually break even if just 40% of the people signed up for the services. At that point it could actually run like a Seattle City light runs, it would cover itself. The expenses would pay their monthly electric bills. It would be considerably cheaper,” Glaser said.

“We understand the importance of our services in the daily lives of our customers and are working hard to create a best-in-class experience for them every day,” Comcast responds. “In the last six years, we have increased speeds four times and have invested $1 billion in Washington to upgrade our reliability and capacity and to prepare for new gigabit services.”

But is it enough?

Statements like that sound good, but for every one of us who’s experienced frustration and dissatisfaction with our internet service provider, we know the subtext: ‘If you don’t like our service, just try going elsewhere. You don’t have a choice.’

We need another option to keep them honest.

This post has been updated to add Rob Johnson to the list of City Councilmembers cited by the Slow Internet Walk organizers as having supported municipal broadband.