Urban Politics #100: The WIN Franchise


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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

With assistance from my Legislative Assistant Newell Aldrich on this issue.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.

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CONTENTS:

  • The WIN Franchise
  • The Need For A Master Cable Franchise Ordinance
  • Updating Our Citizen Review Process
  • The Possibility Of A Municipal Institute Network

The WIN Franchise

Today the City Council unanimously approved a new cable franchise to allow Western Integrated Networks (WIN) the right to lay a new fiber network throughout the city. The existing two cable franchises cover only sectors of the city. WIN’s entrance into our market means that there will be more competition between the cable companies to deliver improved and quality cable and high speed, broad band internet services to Seattle residents.

I have been in contact with some of the most vocal critics of this new franchise agreement and listened to their comments. In essence they have argued that the City could have received more benefits from their negotiations than what it did receive. However even the harshest of critics agreed that the WIN franchise is a very good thing for the City and will usher in a new era of telecommunications.

Under the direction of Council Member Jim Compton, Chair of the City Council Committee responsible for leading the negotiations, the City hired one of the nation’s best cable franchise consultants, Adrian Herbst, to evaluate our efforts and issue a report.. In a number of instances he praised the City for its work, and in the cover letter to the report he wrote, “It is clear that the City has negotiated an outstanding franchise agreement with Western Integrated.”

And he concluded that the tone of the entire franchise gives the City the opportunity to bring WIN back to the negotiating table if conditions so require. If used wisely, this provision enables the City to exercise substantial leadership in keeping WIN’s facilities and services at or near the state of art.

On the road to exercising that leadership I strongly believe that the City Council needs to take the next three legislative actions.

The Need For A Master Cable Franchise Ordinance

The first step should begin the task of writing a Master Cable Ordinance. Mr. Herbst recommended that Seattle develop one to establish uniform standards and requirements when granting cable franchises. And we should begin as soon as possible. It is my understanding that before summer we could see applications coming from AT&T and Millennium, the two current cable operators in Seattle, requesting permission for city wide buildovers similar to the WIN request.

Negotiating these contracts takes a tremendous amount of City staff time. We need to give them guidance before they undertake that task again. A Master Cable Ordinance will let all future cable applicants know what the City expects of them. It can address the issues as varied as limiting street cuts to maximizing public access.

In essence it will allow Seattle to maintain legislative control over all cable franchises in the future.

Updating Our Citizen Review Process

The second step would be to update our franchise laws to allow our citizens an effective voice in reviewing franchises and all related documents in a timely fashion.

For example our current Municipal Code only addresses the requirement for the public to review cable applications, but in fact it is the franchise that is critical these days, not the application. In this recent exercise in franchising WIN, there were only 7 days for the public to review the 60 page franchise contract before the public hearing.

And there was no time allowed to review the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with WIN before the public hearing. Although this document does not have nearly the legal standing as the franchise, it does create a set of expectations between the two parties and as such can become an important political tool in future negotiations.

Unfortunately our consultant’s report reviewing the franchise agreement was also not available until after the public comment period ended. Since it was paid for with public funds it should be made available to the public in a timely fashion. If it had been released before the public hearing a number of criticisms of the franchise might not have been made.

Given this experience, it appears that the City would benefit by updating our ordinances so that all important documents relevant to a cable franchise can be disseminated to the public with sufficient time to be reviewed and commented on. Such an open and transparent process will allow our citizens to better shape our public policies.

The Possibility Of A Municipal Institute Network

The third step we should take is to have a strategy and a policy on how we can maximize the great potential of a high speed, broad band, fiber network for all of our citizens. Some citizens have argued that this can best be met through a functioning Municipal Institution Network, else known as an I – Network. At a minimum this would be a fiber network connecting our city facilities.

Currently we may have several city facilities connected by fiber but we could go beyond that. For example, advocates have asked why not have a publicly owned and operated fiber spine connecting not only public buildings, like libraries and fire stations but also made available to non-profits and possibly even businesses? Council Member Jim Compton has cautioned going down that road in light of King County’s low satisfaction with their network.

And yet I-Networks appear to be working in some other cities and have been used to promote economic development. We could explore the possibility of having a publicly owned and operated fiber spine going through Southeast Seattle to help promote economic development in our Empowerment Zone.

I want to make it clear that an I-Network is not a substitute for private cable franchises. We need them and we want to encourage them to come to our city as WIN has. But there may be a place for I-Networks to supplement them. At a minimum it is an issue that we should seriously explore.

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