Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Digital equity should be a centerpiece of any Click deal

This will almost certainly take longer than 60 days to decide.

And that’s almost certainly a good thing.

A proposal is on the table that would see Tacoma get out of the cable television and Internet business. Instead of operating Click, as it has since the late 1990s, the city would lease all of Click’s infrastructure to a privately owned Kirkland outfit.

For the next 40 years.

The new company is called Wave … as in wave goodbye to your city-owned TV and broadband service. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist. And, no, I’m not the first person to make that joke.)

The proposed deal, which attempts to force the city into a 60-day window to accept it, is being sold on its promise to bring in $80 million in lease payments and $60 million in upgrades over the next four decades, while saving the city an estimated $240 million in operating costs.

There’s an obvious economic incentive here for the City to do something. Hemorrhaging as much money as Click does is unsustainable, even if civic pride is involved. Click’s operation is currently subsidized by Tacoma Public Utilities ratepayers to the tune of $8 million to $9 million a year.

The losses can largely be chalked up to the cable side of the business. If the TPU board and the City Council sign off on the deal, Wave would compete locally with Comcast to sell us cable and Internet, one of which is a shrinking market, the other of which has become a necessity of modern life.

Like a growing number of people, I couldn’t care less about cable TV. If I didn’t work for a newspaper, I’d make a wisecrack about cable being a doomed industry.

I do, however, care about Internet. More specifically, I care about how many people in Tacoma don’t have easy access to it.

As Census figures illustrate, more than a quarter of Tacoma’s households don’t have Web access. National data show that access to quality Internet goes down as household income goes down.

“Without access to the Internet, it puts you at a disadvantage,” Mayor Marilyn Strickland explained. “There’s still a pretty significant portion of our community that doesn’t have Internet access at home.”

That’s a problem we have no assurance the Wave deal will address.

While the letter of intent behind the lease promises that “Wave will establish low-income rates consistent with those currently offered by Click,” currently Click only offers a low-income package for cable. It sells its broadband wholesale to three local ISP providers. And while they generally offer low-cost entry points, none currently offers a specific low-income Internet package.

Wave spokesman Rob Katz says the company is evaluating a low-income option for Internet in Tacoma. The company, however, doesn’t offer such a rate in its other markets. Aside from broad assurances, in other words, details are scant about how a low-income package from Wave might be structured here.

Strickland said she’s confident establishing a low-income rate with Wave won’t be a problem. She’s also adamant that any agreement with the company can’t simply be one that offers the “lowest, slowest” services.

That’s a good start.

The City Council held its weekly meeting on Tuesday, the same day that many were briefed for the first time on the proposed Wave deal. As part of the meeting, Mayor Strickland read from the council’s 2015 Strategic Policy Priorities and Objectives.

The second priority: “Ensure all Tacoma residents are valued and have access to resources to meet their needs.”

Objective No. 2: “Develop and implement a strategy to create Citywide digital equity for residents by exploring options and leveraging Click Network.”

Connectivity and access to information can be an equalizer. Like running water or electricity, access to the Internet – whether it’s on a computer or a digital device — has become a necessity. More and more, education happens online. Communication happens online. Modern life requires you to be online.

Whether or not a lease with Wave is the answer, Tacoma has an obligation to make sure any deal is done with all citizens in mind, and not just the bottom line of a floundering cable TV business.

To her credit, Strickland promises that “We’re not going to make a decision fully based on a balance sheet. (Click) is a public entity, and there has to be a public benefit to what we do.”

According to Click’s own estimates, it would cost $9.6 million over the next 10 years to ditch cable service entirely and sell only wholesale Internet. If such a route could be forged in a way that would help ensure Internet equity throughout the city, it might be a small price to pay.

At the very least, it’s worth discussing.

Let’s look at any potential Click deal in terms of the future, not the past.

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