It took me back.
Not long after starting work at The News Tribune, early in 2015, a collection of Tacoma Public Utilities officials walked into a conference room here at the paper and delivered a sobering assessment.
Click — the city-owned cable and internet system — was a money loser, they said. TPU ratepayers were subsidizing a floundering and unsustainable business. The smartest path forward, they advised, was a plan to lease the city's fiber network to a private broadband company.
Much has transpired since then, but some things haven’t changed. Last week, a different collection of TPU officials strolled into the same conference room and reiterated some of the same ominous concerns – with the same clear takeaway.
If a public-private partnership is what the future holds for Click — and that suddenly feels like the direction this is all trending — there are certain objectives that are too important to let slide. The fiber network Tacoma paid for and built must be used as a vehicle for good and not just profit.
Any deal must explicitly ensure and promote equitable access to low-income residents across the city.
Any deal must safeguard the principles of net neutrality, now and into the future.
And any deal must allow Tacoma to maintain ownership and as much control as possible of its fiber network.
The conclusion TPU officials and new mayor Victoria Woodards (who was also on hand for last week’s meeting) have reached is spelled out in a resolution the TPU board is expected to vote on Wednesday. It states that the city should abandon its effort to transform Click into a municipally-owned and operated internet, cable and phone service provider, at least as far as using revenue from Tacoma Power is concerned.
In essence, they want to back out of the much-hyped “all in” plan and go back to the drawing board. If the effort succeeds, the city will entertain bids and proposals from “any and all entities,” including the distinct possibility of a public-private partnership emerging.
Unspoken, but clearly evident, is the mental and financial toll the lawsuit challenging the legality of the “all in” plan is taking on the city. It looms large and shouldn’t be undersold as a motivating factor here. Having already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees, it’s safe to say the city isn’t feeling great about its chances in court.
In pushing the reset button, and pushing for a new course, utility board member Mark Patterson said the hope is to meet as many of the 12 “community policy goals” laid out in the resolution as possible.
Those goals include variations of the ones mentioned above and others, like maintaining financial stability, promoting economic development and educational opportunities, providing job options for current Click employees and protecting customer service.
Pressed on the matter, Patterson said meeting all of those goals may not be realistic and that, in his view, none are deal breakers.
I disagree. The reason the Click debate has taken on the life it has is not just because Tacoma residents feel passionate about our municipally owned fiber network. It’s because we realize the power and possibility of it and don’t want to see an opportunity to leverage our infrastructure frittered away.
So here’s the bottom line: If the TPU board ultimately passes this resolution, and the City Council follows up with similar action of its own, ensuring low-income access, net-neutrality protections and continuing public ownership need to be requirements for any deal we enter into. These can’t just be things for which we’re keeping our fingers crossed.
Politically, changing courses won’t come without lumps. While there are important and substantial differences between this development and the 40-year lease proposal from Kirkland-based Wave that started it all, the public reaction is likely to be similar. Whether objects get thrown remains to be seen, but it’s a safe bet that emotion will run high. We’re likely in for a bumpy ride.
Woodards sounded an exhausted note during last week’s meeting, signaling that the City Council is tired of having Click study sessions and is ready to move on.
If that’s to happen — at least smoothly — being clear about what we demand of a potential private partner will go a long way.