Zealous subscribers of Tacoma’s Click network value the homegrown telecom provider so highly they sometimes describe it in dramatic, even life-sustaining terms. Last week, one longtime customer gushingly compared Click’s service to the clean, pure water he gets from Tacoma’s water utility.
By contrast, when he’s away from home and is stuck using Click’s corporate competitor, “it’s like drinking out of a storm drain,” he told the Tacoma Public Utilities Board.
Customer loyalty like that doesn’t happen by accident. From its founding in 1997, Click created a state-of-the-art municipal fiber network, fostered competition that kept rates down and put Tacoma on the map for a time as “America’s No. 1 wired city.” Few people want to see this asset disappear.
But Click’s days drinking freely from the fountain of electric utility funds are numbered. Thank goodness, so is the city’s fanciful two-year-old plan to go “all in” with an upgraded high-speed retail internet operation on the backs of TPU ratepayers, some of whom don’t even live in Click’s service area.
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The city charter, state law and a memo written by Tacoma’s former city attorney (now city manager) have long weighed against the TPU-subsidized model. Now the Utilities Board has finally come around, with the City Council presumably following this week.
The TPU Board voted unanimously Wednesday to explore relationships with private telecom companies or other partners that could help grow Click while adhering to a dozen customer-focused goals. That spells a welcome end to the old business plan, which was based on the ludicrous notion of siphoning $14.7 million from electric utility funds.
File it under the heading of “better late than never.” Using outside capital to secure Click’s future is an excellent idea that goes back at least three years.
City officials, in a recent meeting with our Editorial Board, said the turning point was the completion of a study by an independent municipal broadband consultant. It concluded that the plan to build up Click’s infrastructure using TPU funds, then sell bundled cable, phone and gigabit-speed internet service, wasn’t feasible in light of technology and market conditions.
That report was informative, no doubt, but it’s obvious something else figured strongly in the reversal: a lawsuit filed last year seeking redress for electric ratepayers.
Will the decision to wean Click from TPU make the lawsuit go away? “I hope it’s looked at favorably by the plaintiffs,” said city attorney Bill Fosbre, cautiously. For now, however, the plaintiffs say they will go forward.
Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of recent public-private fiber optic ventures around the U.S. that Tacoma could look to for guidance — from Lincoln, Nebraska, which is partnering with a regional internet service provider, to Huntsville, Alabama, which signed on with Google Fiber.
Click purists bristle at any thought of corporatization, haunted by the 40-year lease Tacoma considered signing with Wave Communications in 2015. The Kirkland company was gobbled up last year by the country’s sixth-largest internet and cable operator in a $2.4 billion deal.
But Tacoma has learned from that experience. Open competition wasn’t part of the Wave negotiations, nor did the city have the dozen core principles that it’s now adopted. Those policy goals are admirable — promoting values such as low-income access, economic development and job security for Click staff — although the hard work of prioritizing them can’t be avoided. Achieving all 12 in equal measure wouldn’t be realistic.
What the Utility Board won’t back down on is the bold, dynamic spirit that made Click a cutting-edge investment two decades ago. At last week’s meeting, board member Karen Larkin described it as “measured risk-taking.”
That sounds OK, as long as the risk isn’t borne by TPU ratepayers who may not subscribe to Click, and in some cases don’t have the option.