By Michael Sarko
– The Capitol Hill Times -
Earlier this year, the City of Seattle began accepting bids for the miles of unused, or “dark,” fiber wire it had installed years ago for high-speed Internet service. With the exception of some leasing to corporate entities, much of the fiber has remained dark for years, so the City entertained proposals from private organizations to put the wire to work. Recently, the Office of the Mayor announced that the City, the University of Washington, and a company called Gigabit Squared have partnered to create Internet service at speeds that are unprecedented in Seattle.
Gigabit Seattle, the official program title for the upcoming network, will launch in 12 “demonstration neighborhoods,” two of which cover Capitol Hill. The Volunteer Park Area coverage zone will bring high-speed fiber service to the homes and businesses of northern Capitol Hill, with the Pike/Pine corridor and all remaining residential areas falling within the First Hill/Capitol Hill/Central Area designation.
The Gigabit Seattle network will include three components. The first is the primary fiber wire service available in the 12 launch neighborhoods, which are mostly residential areas. Except for a small tract of real estate operated by the University of Washington, downtown will not be a part of the launch. Only the businesses and homes around South Lake Union will enjoy fiber wire service in the first round of Gigabit Seattle. The other two elements of the launch will be a wireless cloud established for mobile access both within and outside of the primary coverage zones. Gigabit Squared will install wireless transmitters on top of 38 buildings around the city, requiring line-of-sight with those transmitters to access the service.
Gigabit Squared has offered projections about the speeds fiber wire users can expect. There are five levels of service, beginning at 20 megabits per second (Mbps) and topping out at 1,000 Mbps (aka one gigabit per second), both for upstream and downstream. This means that, at all levels, upload speeds and download speeds will be functionally identical. In many current forms of Internet service, including ethernet and cable, upload speeds tend to be considerably slower than download speeds.
To compare, current Internet speeds in Seattle average between three and 12 Mbps. If Gigabit Seattle delivers on these promises, it would be a major turnaround for Internet service in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle has registered some of the slowest average speeds in the region, lagging behind Olympia and Salem, Oregon. The maximum speed of Gigabit Seattle would also match the much-touted Google Fiber currently in its field test in Kansas City.
The University of Washington’s role in the Gigabit Seattle program is part of Gig.U, The University Community Next Generation Innovation Project. UW joins other institutions such as the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina, the University of Illinois, and Pennsylvania State University in this nationwide program. Gig.U seeks funding and corporate partnerships to wire many of the top research universities in the United States with high-speed Internet service in a bid to catch up with competing nations around the world. Today, America doesn’t even break the Top 25 in average Internet speeds, achieving a mean of 616 kilobits a second, nearly a quarter of the leading speeds in South Korea.The leadership of Gig.U argues that this comparatively slow access has a negative, long-term effect on the U.S. economy.
The long and short of Gigabit Seattle is that it is a private Internet service provider that has jumped on the chance to capitalize on a fiber wire infrastructure that has only just become available to third parties. The Seattle Department of Information Technology chose not to name names when asked about the most likely bidders for the City’s fiber wire in 2012. Rather than corporations already established in Seattle further expanding their own networks, the City chose Gigabit Squared, a corporation that leads with a narrative of community development, educational support, and improved medical service. The City’s fiber wire is not exclusive to Gigabit Squared, though. Comcast leased some fiber in 2011.
Those who live in the 12 neighborhoods covered by Gigabit Seattle can expect service to become available in Fall 2013. Gigabit Squared has yet to announce pricing for home or business customers. The program will come at no cost to the City itself, as all fiber wire has already been installed and will be leased by Gigabit Squared from the City of Seattle. If the initial rollout of Gigabit Seattle service is successful, the company will likely expand coverage to additional neighborhoods.