Risk versus reward.
Spreadsheets versus vision.
Pessimism versus optimism.
In dissecting the ongoing debate over how Tacoma should expand Click Cable TV into internet service, there are number of arguments being made.
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But as the Tacoma Public Utilities board gets down to the important businesses of weighing the public funding options identified to move Click into the “all-in” future the City Council and residents have demanded, the biggest questions are philosophical ones.
What do we want Click to be, and what can Click be for the people of Tacoma and its public utility?
As The News Tribune’s Candice Ruud has reported this week, there are now at least three funding options on the table.
The first two — to varying levels — rely on money from the city’s general fund to account for losses Click is expected to incur when it’s run as a publicly owned and operated municipal broadband provider. The accounting on these expected losses, it’s worth noting, is (and has been) open for debate. But for the sake of this column, let’s take TPU Director Bill Gaines’ estimates of losses in the $5.5 to $7.5 million per year range as solid.
$5.5 to $7.5 million per year TPU Director Bill Gaines’ estimate of the system losses for going “all-in” on Click
The third funding proposal, introduced by TPU board member Bryan Flint on Wednesday, goes the other direction. It calls for TPU to cover the expected losses, and also looks to the public utility to foot the bill for needed upgrades to the Click system to gigabit internet service speeds. He says owning Click and funding the upgrades will be good for Tacoma citizens. “This infrastructure will be important to the electric ratepayer,” he tells me.
With all due respect to the first two plans, they’re what political types like to call nonstarters.
Yes, you can make arguments as to why TPU shouldn’t “subsidize” — groan — internet service, but with the city facing a projected $6.7 million shortfall in the next budget biennium, it’s unrealistic to expect the City Council to shutter libraries or shortchange needed public safety issues in order to funnel money toward Click.
Nor should they.
Perhaps that’s the fiscal message the first two proposals are intending to send: If you want Click to go “all-in,” City Council, then pony up for it.
Businesses, as TPU board member Monique Trudnowski has often said, can’t operate at a loss.
Which brings us back to one of the fundamental philosophical questions here: Does a publicly owned and operated municipal broadband provider need to be run as a business, in a strict, bottom-line sense?
Or is it more appropriate to view broadband as a utility — like water, gas and electricity — that has the potential to not only create competition that benefits Tacoma residents, but also equity throughout the city? Is it fair to expect Tacoma Power — which has a yearly budget more than double the city’s general fund — to figure out how to balance the books while the business side of things gets up to speed?
In case it wasn’t already clear, I say it’s the latter.
In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission reclassified broadband access a utility. Earlier this year, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, as part of a broader ruling on the FCC’s net neutrality rules, agreed with the decision.
Now, you can certainly have a robust debate over whether or not classifying broadband as a utility will ultimately be good for consumers, but we’re not blazing a new trail here. We’re just taking advantage of what we already have.
Since Tacoma has a broadband network to call its own, while other cities clamor for one (cough, Seattle, cough) it would be shortsighted to not do everything within our power to take full advantage of its potential.
The people — and the City Council — have been clear: We want to go “all-in” on Click internet.
It’s time for TPU — a publicly owned utility — to take the direction and make it happen.
I can make the argument to why there should be a general fund contribution to this process, but the money isn’t there, and I don’t want to compete with police and fire and libraries and force the Council to make choices about that and broadband internet when the utility can afford it.
TPU board member Bryan Flint
“We should pay for it because it’s going to benefit our electric ratepayers. We’re managing the system. … We have the resources to pay for it,” Flint says.
“I can make the argument to why there should be a general fund contribution to this process, but the money isn’t there, and I don’t want to compete with police and fire and libraries and force the council to make choices about that and broadband internet when the utility can afford it.”