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Seattle's Pioneer Square could get internet boost

Charla Bear
Workers lay conduit under First Avenue South. The pipe belongs to the city, but Mayor Mike McGinn wants to allow private companies to use it to bring faster internet service to small businesses and residential customers.

A new effort could make internet speeds 100 times faster for some small businesses and residential customers in Seattle. Mayor Mike McGinn announced a plan to bring fiber optic broadband to Pioneer Square as part of an ongoing effort to revitalize the neighborhood.

The historic district has become a hub for small high-tech companies, but many of them worry their growth could stall because of slow internet service.

Jeff Strain, founder of video game development company Undead Labs, says high speed internet isn't just a tool his employees use for work:

“To us, it’s essential for us to be able to keep our company here," he says. "We’ve got 20 employees right now. As we grow, there will come a time when we literally would not be able to keep our business here if the city wasn’t able to give us some kind of other option.”

At a press conference, Mayor McGinn said he wants to give small businesses, and possibly residential customers, access to the same type of fiber optic network large companies use in other parts of the city. They get their service from private providers, such as Qwest or Comcast.

The companies don't offer the service to many small office or residential buildings in Seattle because it's really expensive to install the fiber optic cables in underground pipes. So, McGinn wants to let companies lease space in city-owned conduit as a less expensive option. 

Right now, that’s against local rules and regulations.

If the city council decides to change the laws, internet users along First Avenue South from King Street to Cherry Street could get dramatically higher speeds than they do today. That could go a long way to modernizing the historic district and keeping high-tech businesses there. 

Private providers have until June 6th to submit a bid for the conduit space. McGinn says if companies don't bite, the city will look into doing the job itself.

Seattle has nearly 500 miles of unused fiber optic cable that's just sitting under the city. McGinn says dealing with the so called "dark fiber" is a larger matter that'll be tackled sometime in the future.

Charla joined us in January, 2010 and is excited to be back in Seattle after several years in Washington, DC, where she was a director and producer for NPR. Charla has reported from three continents and several outlets including Marketplace, San Francisco Chronicle and NPR. She has a master of journalism from University of California, Berkeley and a bachelor's degree in architecture from University of Washington.
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