The Tacoma City Council meeting of November 5, 2019 was filled with passionate testimony, including the surplussing of Click network.
While public comment is open to anything on the agenda, everyone was talking about Click. There were two items pertaining to the network on the agenda: the first being the surplus of the systems excess capacity and related equipment, and the other being the execution of the business agreement with Rainier Connect. Advocates of public broadband spoke about how important they felt it was, helping ratepayers, controlling prices, and preserving net neutrality. Click customers spoke about the great service they’ve received, the affordability, and sense of ownership. Mitchell Shook, owner of Advanced Streams and rival of Rainier Connect spoke about his disdain for the entire process, claimed that they were gifting taxpayer money, and that Click had never been audited. The president of Rainier Connect, Brian Haynes, was the only person to speak in favor of the deal in a procession of 20–30 people.
The thing being lost here is the operation of the network, Click cable. As it turns out, the internet portion of the network is already being leased by two companies, Rainier Connect and Advanced Streams. The cable television was owned by the network. A majority of the network is unused. Thinking of the network as a highway that the city owns, a few lanes are rented to Rainier, a few to Advanced Streams, and one was operated by Click. The new deal rents out the full network to Rainier Connect.
So what led the city to pursue this deal? More people are ditching cable entirely for streaming services. Large competitors are able to bundle services. The network hasn’t upgraded at all since its construction, so the costs of deferred maintenance amounted to around 50 million dollars the city didn’t have. This led the city to explore two options, “all-in” which means assuming full operation as well as ownership, or the public-private partnership that they ultimately settled on. The all-in option, which several other councilmembers preferred required large amounts of capital to upgrade the network as well as build out the capacity. All-in meant kicking out the private companies leasing the network and assuming all the profits and risk. The city hired a consultant and explored two options, getting the funds from Tacoma Public Utilities, or the city’s general fund. State law prohibited the city to fund it through TPU, and the city feared the cuts they would have to make if they used the general fund.
The city council and board members of Tacoma Public Utilities set 12 policy goals for an agreement with a private company. These included subsidized rates for low income customers, the preservation of net neutrality, and consistent financial investment in the upgrading of the network. The lease is set for 40 years, to be renewed every decade. If the terms of the agreement are violated, the city can retake operation of the network. The city approached 12 different service providers about the proposed partnership, and eventually narrowed it down to two, Rainier Connect and Advanced Streams.
The city made a move today that was a compromise to preserve a system. Many Click employees lost their jobs, and consumers will have to be wary of predatory contracts and potentially increased rates, but there is a binding agreement and an upgraded system coming to Tacoma. Public internet is not dead in Tacoma, only delayed, and this is not the end for Click.
City council meets every Tuesday at 5 PM at 747 market street. If you’d like to learn more, share concerns, or go with someone to a council meeting, you can reach Sean Arent at ASUWTCL@UW.EDU”