CenturyLink says a city rule is putting Seattle behind on broadband

by: Graham Johnson Updated:

CenturyLink Utility box

SEATTLE - The "SDOT Director's Rule" came under fire in a company presentation to a Seattle City Council committee this week.

The rule requires neighbors to sign off before CenturyLink can put in utility boxes.

Since 2005, Seattle has required private utilities building in the public right of way to get permission from the adjacent property owner as well as 60 percent of the owners within about a block.

"We want to make sure we have a high threshold of support so if the public wants one they can have it," said Brian De Place, right-of-way manager for the Seattle Department of Transportation.

De Place spoke to KIRO 7 beside three Century Link broadband utility boxes in a planting strip along 1st Avenue Northeast near Green Lake. De Place said the city instituted the rule after a significant number of neighbors complained about the boxes. While he did not have an exact number of complaints, De Place said "SDOT would never have implemented such high standards without significant feedback from the community."

De Place said CenturyLink has the option of paying property owners to put the boxes on private land, or burying them in the street. 

Sue Anderson, CenturyLink vice president and general manager for the Puget Sound area, told KIRO 7 the cost of burying boxes in the street can run between $200,000 and $300,000 in a residential area, compared to less than $50,000 to put them above ground. She said within the last year the company has moved from needing three utility boxes to installing two. The company has also worked to shield some boxes with shrubs.

CenturyLink says between 2009 through early 2011, the company canceled nearly 60 projects in the city because it could not meet the terms of the SDOT Director's Rule. CenturyLink says those projects would have provided high-speed broadband to more than 21,000 customers.

The company says it is much easier to work in other local cities such as Auburn and Kent, which are less restrictive. Other cities, like Portland, are more restrictive. Portland prohibits above-ground private utility boxes in public spaces. Anderson said CenturyLink has had more success in Portland getting private property owners to lease land.

CenturyLink is lobbying the City Council to allow it to conduct two broadband pilot projects on Beacon Hill. That project would get around the SDOT Director's Rule, by allowing the company to survey residents on whether they want the service, and move ahead only if they get a favorable response.

Beacon Hill is considered under-served by high speed Internet. 

"I call my coworker in Graham and he has better Internet than I do. And he lives on a farm," resident David Showalter told the City Council.

According to a presentation prepared for the city, CenturyLink says it "recently implemented changes that double existing speeds, allowing the company to offer speeds up to 100Mbps in areas where next generation infrastructure has been deployed.