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Broadband Adoption Reaches a Standstill in Tech-Savvy Seattle

Even one of America's most connected cities is struggling to get everyone online.

(AP/Elaine Thompson)
When it comes to expanding broadband Internet, Seattle has all the right ingredients for success. It has a highly educated workforce, a median household income that exceeds the state average, a local economy primed with technology jobs and a growing community of telecommuters. So it’s no surprise that the metro area has one of the nation’s highest rates of broadband adoption.

Nationally, 75 percent of households have broadband. In Seattle, the number is near 85 percent, according to a recent report from the Brookings Institution. But progress has stalled in the Emerald City. The adoption rate has been stuck around 85 percent for the past several years -- and city officials are trying to understand why. 

Having 85 percent of households with broadband sounds great to some, but others say anything less than universal adoption is a drag on education and the economy. While broadband isn’t as essential as electricity or water, it’s fast becoming a fundamental service.

“Think if we were at 75 percent for electricity or running water. With 25 percent of the population without broadband, it has ramifications for students who don’t have access, for jobseekers,” said Adie Tomer, co-author of the Brookings report. “It’s a real missed opportunity.”

Tomer also points out that if America achieved universal broadband, then governments could shift many services online and save money. 

The report shows just how unequal broadband adoption is across the country. Rates range from 88 percent in San Jose, Calif., to 58 percent in Laredo, Texas. In communities with deep pockets of poverty, broadband adoption can be abysmal. But just how low those rates go and why they remain so low isn’t known yet because no report has tracked adoption rates below the metro area level.

“What needs to be done,” said Tomer, “is to go to the sub-metro level to get a better feel of how and why we still have these digital divides.”

Currently, the United States ranks 23rd in the world for broadband adoption. Most agree that universal adoption will require federal action to remove legal, bureaucratic and financial barriers. President Obama launched a pilot program last year to bring broadband to low-income people in 28 communities. But Tomer believes it could be years -- if not decades -- before those barriers come down everywhere. Until that happens, state and local governments have been creating programs and incentives to push adoption rates higher. 

In Seattle, for example, the city commissioned a study to find out if municipal broadband could be the answer to universal adoption. But when the report was released, officials balked at the $480 to $665 million price tag and abandoned the idea of having the local government provide broadband.

Instead, Seattle’s leaders looked at how they regulate the cable TV companies that have become the primary providers of broadband. The city changed its code to make it easier for other companies to enter the market and hopefully bring down prices. Since the city changed its code, the telecom firm CenturyLink has brought cheaper broadband to more than 165,000 homes in a city that was once dominated by Comcast.

Seattle also convinced Comcast to increase the number of people eligible for its discounted Internet service by expanding it from just low-income households with children to low-income seniors. On top of that, the city is working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to accelerate adoption for families living in subsidized housing, and is using $470,000 in grants to educate and train nonusers about the value of the Internet.

But even with all these programs and strategies, Seattle Chief Information Officer Michael Mattmiller remains cautious about how quickly the city can reach universal broadband. The Brookings report was taken before Seattle made all of these changes, so it remains to be seen what impact they'll have on overall adoption rates. Cost, language and other factors could be holding back a small but vulnerable portion of the population, said Mattmiller, but he’s not sure which is the chief reason.

“We need more data to quantify and understand the challenges to prioritize how to close the adoption gap,” he said. “It’s going to be a long effort to close that last 15 percent gap.”

Tod is the editor of Governing . Previously, he was the senior editor at Government Technology and the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for IT executives in the public sector, and is the author of several books on information management.
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