Seattle Broadband Upgrade: Gigabit Speeds Coming to 12 Neighborhoods

To maintain its position as a world-class technology hub, Seattle needs faster broadband, city leaders say. To that end, broadband developer Gigabit Squared, in partnership with the city of Seattle and the University of Washington, is starting an ultra-fast broadband pilot project, with speeds promised up to 1 Gigabit per second.

Gigabit Seattle would lease excess fiber optic capacity and other infrastructure from the city of Seattle and install new cable to wire some 50,000 Seattle homes and businesses in 12 neighborhoods, including tech-heavy South Lake Union, various parts of the UW, much of downtown, Capitol Hill and First Hill, and parts of south Seattle—Beacon Hill in particular—where competitive high-speed Internet access is an ongoing concern. (See this map for details: PDF.)

Buildings where fiber is not readily available would get “gigabit-speed radio connections,” using licensed spectrum to reduce congestion and interference. (Buildings outside of the demonstration neighborhoods could also use this service, provided they have a clear line of sight to one of the 38 radio transmitters to be placed atop public buildings around town.)

The neighborhoods would also be covered by high-speed wireless networks.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn calls it “a very promising proposal that can help bring 21st century infrastructure to Seattle.” UW President Michael Young called it’s a “game-changer.”

“This new level of high-speed connectivity will provide essential infrastructure to help us address some of our biggest problems in the areas of climate, the environment, education, energy, and transportation,” Young said in a statement.

Washington already ranks first in the nation in a recent TechNet state-by-state report on broadband adoption, quality, and economic structure.

The goal of the project is “to spur advancements in health care, education, and public safety, as well as drive business growth,” according to a technical FAQ. It would also “provide a platform for innovation that will drive the development of applications to address critical needs.”

With “symmetrical” upstream and downstream data rates, the service is designed for two-way video, audio, and image sharing in real time. Gigabit is committing to an “open architecture to encourage innovation and competition.” The network will be “vendor neutral,” so customers won’t have to purchase content from any one provider to obtain service.

The UW’s role is to help pilot new health care and education applications. The city is coordinating the effort among its agencies—including the leasing of the unused portion of the more than 500 miles of fiber it has built in the last 15 years—but neither public entity is investing capital in the project. (The city formally abandoned its plan to build a municipally owned broadband network last summer.)

Gigabit Squared says the public sector’s involvement helps reduce cost and risk. The company has developed relationships with investors to back the “extremely expensive” development of a fiber network, but pledges “extremely competitive” rates—rates which “are yet to be finalized.”

The Washington, D.C.-based company was selected from 10 respondents to a city request for proposals this fall and is planning to build more than 200 miles of fiber as part of the project.

With a memorandum of understanding and letter of intent in hand, Gigabit Squared is developing the network with a goal of providing services to 100,000 residents by the end of 2014, and remaining in place for a decade. Though as Brier Dudley at The Seattle Times points out, the project would only initially serve a small fraction of Seattle households. Dudley has lots of other details about the city’s broadband saga and where Seattle stands relative to other parts of the state and nation.

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