Remember Seth, the Washington state homeowner who was putting his recently purchased house up for sale because no one — not Comcast, not CenturyLink, not his county — was willing or able to provide the broadband connection he needed for his home office? We’re happy to tell you that Seth is still in the house and he can now go online.
“We have Internet!” Seth writes, putting an end to six months of doubt about his family’s future in their new home. “As you can imagine, it’s an amazing relief.”
We’d been checking in with Seth in the months since running his story and knew that something was in the works, but didn’t want to spoil his efforts by posting anything until after everything had been connected.
A REFRESHER COURSE IN FRUSTRATION
For those coming late to the story, here’s a quick recap.
Seth and his family relocated to Washington from the Bay Area at the beginning of 2015. He is a software developer who works remotely from his home office, so he needs a decent and dependable broadband connection.
Before moving, he’d checked with Comcast multiple times that his new address had service, but when the install tech came, it became clear that the nearest Comcast connection was more than a thousand feet from his property.
CenturyLink also claimed to service Seth’s address, but then told him that — in spite of what the company’s website says — no, his part of town had not yet been built out and there was no plan to do so.
Kitsap County, where Seth now lives, operates a high-speed fiberoptic broadband network but Washington state law prohibits municipalities from selling Internet access directly to consumers.
Other options — satellite, microwave broadband, dial-up — were either inadequate for Seth’s needs or unavailable. His only viable alternative was LTE data, but that was not financially tenable for the long run.
WORKING THE SYSTEM
While working on the original story about Seth’s predicament, we learned that officials at the county’s public utility district (KPUD) were sympathetic and wanted to help, but were also hamstrung by state rules forbidding them to sell directly to Seth or any consumer end-user.
Seth says that when he first discussed the possible work-arounds with KPUD, it was not promising. This was the first time the county had ever even considered doing some sort of residential connection, and the initial estimate was in the low six figures.
“That’s why we didn’t even think of them as a possible solution to our problem when we decided we had to sell the house,” Seth explains to Consumerist.
Seth also lucked out that he had thought to contact KPUD in the beginning. If he hadn’t reached out, he says the county would have been legally unable to make the first move.
“They can’t evangelize their own services, which is frankly absurd to me,” he writes. “But because I was in touch with them and asked about service first, they were able to work with me.”
And after his story ran in March, a KPUD official contacted Seth with an idea that would get the cost down significantly.
“He said they might be able to do something called a ‘Developer’s Extension,'” a process the county had undertaken for things like extending water service, but never for fiber.
Seth explains, that under a Developer’s Extension agreement, Seth (the “developer” in this case) would be responsible for building the infrastructure (i.e., digging the trench to run a line that connects his property to the nearest fiber source). That meant he had to pay for the materials and find a contractor willing to do the work.
“In the end, KPUD buys back the infrastructure for some token amount,” writes Seth, “and it becomes their property. That way, they don’t need to use any taxpayer money to do it.”
Seth has asked that we don’t quote his actual expenses, but we can say it was not cheap for him to have the work done, though it was only a fraction of the cost estimate Comcast had provided before ultimately saying it could not do the work.
Speaking of Comcast, the company did make good on its promise, in light of its screw-up, to cover a year of LTE broadband costs for him.
In the end, the cost of running the fiber added to the property’s value, and saved Seth and his family the expense of selling and relocating twice in the same year.
WON’T WORK FOR EVERYONE
Seth says that while the novel idea of the Developer’s Extension worked for him, it was really just a special case and not a process the KPUD can undertake with every person in the same unlucky situation.
Instead, the more likely solution for those in a similar predicament is to form what’s known as a Local Utility District [LUD]. That’s when a group of homeowners come together and petition to get service that would be paid for as a small additional property tax, amortized over a couple of decades.
“An LUD could be as few as two houses,” explains Seth, acknowledging that more is better.
THE FINAL PIECE
Okay, so Seth now had a connection to KPUD fiber line, but the county still can’t sell him service directly. Without a third-party ISP to handle that part of the equation, Seth would have just wasted thousands of dollars.
He found a small, locally run ISP, DT Micro, that resells access to NoaNet, the backbone broadband carrier that provides bandwidth to each of the county PUDs in Washington.
DT Micro only sells commercial broadband service, which means Seth had to go and create an LLC to order it.
“So really the bandwidth is for my home business,” he tells Consumerist, “though I’ve made an agreement with myself to let me use it for non-commercial use.”
The pricing is competitive with what he would have paid for Comcast’s business-level service to his home and there’s no speed throttling or any nonsense one might expect from a typical cable company broadband line.
THE FIGHT HAS JUST BEGUN
Though Seth’s situation is solved, he realizes that not everyone would be as willing or able to pay for the extension, or accept the higher price of commercial broadband, or deal with the red tape of local bureaucracies.
“What if I didn’t want to jump through those hoops?” he asks. “What if I were just some guy who wanted fiber to the home and cheap Internet?”
He describes as a bit of a chicken/egg situation, where ISPs willing to sell access to municipally owned fiber lines don’t have residential pricing… because they don’t have residential customers… because those potential customers are turned away by only seeing commercial plans available to them.
So even if a neighborhood of homeowners got together and formed an LUD, they might still have to pay for a tier of service they don’t need or want.
The experience has had the unintended result of converting Seth into a self-described “evangelist” or LUDs. He says he hopes to spread the word about the power that people in small communities can have if they pool together.
He tells Consumerist, “If I can get a neighborhood interested in working with KPUD, I’ll consider myself successful!”