Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Going ‘all in’ on Click was a decision too long in the making

Click vans are parked at Tacoma Public Utilities offices in March.
Click vans are parked at Tacoma Public Utilities offices in March. Staff file

All in.

That was the directive Tuesday night from the City Council, delivered after over 40 public commenters strode to the podium with varying levels of fire, indignation and disdain over the possibility that elected officials might lease our Click Cable TV to a private company.

The unanimous, 8-0 vote (Councilwoman Victoria Woodards was absent), means the city will now move forward with developing a business plan for Tacoma’s city-owned cable and broadband network. Look for that in April.

It was the right decision, far too long in the making.

Nine months have passed, if we’re counting from the time TPU officials first came to the council with news that Wave — a company based out of Kirkland with operations up and down the West Coast — had put forward an offer to lease Tacoma’s fiber network for 40 years, to the tune of $80 million in lease payments and $60 million in upgrades.

It’s been much longer — three years — if we’re counting from the time that consultants first warned that Click’s business plan was unsustainable unless Tacoma went “all in.” For those who haven’t been following this public utility drama closely, all-in stands for the city offering Internet and telephone service alongside the cable television it already sells. (In all likelihood, this also means cutting out several middlemen ISPs that currently offer Internet service using the city’s fiber network.)

The debate had become increasingly nasty. Remember that time someone hucked a polling device on stage in frustration during an event intended to gather feedback on the potential lease? Seems like so long ago, and almost quaint. Even though Tuesday’s council meeting was technically about little more than choosing which business plan to explore — the “all-in” approach, or a potential sale or lease — it took on a contentious, high-stakes atmosphere. Political careers were threatened. Names were called. There were boos and there were hisses.

Of course, what’s a City Council meeting these days without Mayor Marilyn Strickland reminding an impassioned crowd that we have “adult conversations” in Tacoma?

At the end of the day, TPU management needs to know our expectations and follow our direction.

Councilman Ryan Mello

Tuesday’s vote means we finally seem on the cusp of having just such an adult conversation about the future of Internet in Tacoma — hopefully with a set of transparent facts and figures we can all agree on.

TPU officials have insisted that Click, as it currently operates, is losing some $7.6 million per year, and that those losses are subsidized by electric customers. That may be entirely accurate. At this point, I haven’t the foggiest. And I’m not alone. As outgoing Councilwoman Lauren Walker put it Tuesday night, “The numbers have been a struggle from the beginning. … We all don’t really trust the numbers.”

Whether you believe TPU’s calculations or not, what’s clear is the public utility’s top brass lost the love for Click a long time ago. They don’t believe cable television or Internet should fall under their umbrella, and they argue that having electric ratepayers subsidizing the operation is technically illegal.

To put things mildly, when it comes to Click, they’re kind of over it.

What Tuesday night’s vote also makes clear, however, is the City Council isn’t ready to throw in the towel on Click.

“At the end of the day, TPU management needs to know our expectations and follow our direction,” Councilman Ryan Mello said.

Make no mistake, big questions loom on the horizon. How much it will cost to rework Click’s business plan into a profitable one, who will pay for it, how long it will take, and just what will Internet service in Tacoma look like when we’re done are all yet to be determined. There will be plenty of time for prudent, fiscally responsible discourse.

We’re here to compete. We’re here to compete hard. And we’re here to win.

Mayor Marilyn Strickland

But as David Boe said at his final council meeting, Tuesday’s decision was about the big picture, and one overriding theme for Tacoma.

Potential.

“I can’t support doing something with Click when we haven’t presented the best possible Click,” Mayor Marilyn Strickland offered prior to the vote. “It’s about the quality of the product.”

The message the mayor wants Tacoma to send:

“We’re here to compete. We’re here to compete hard. And we’re here to win.”

All in.

It’s about time.

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