City Council debates digital parity

Officials can agree on 10 years to complete project, it’s the percentage of coverage that baffles

In 2015, Auburn City Council members set a goal of increasing internet access in the city to get to digital parity by 2020.

A year later, having agreed to focus first on providing broadband access to low-income students, city leaders launched a pilot “digital parity” program, without big service providers like Comcast.

Today, with parts of Auburn from Game Farm Park to areas of Lea Hill, school areas on Muckleshoot Hill and the downtown wired, Paul Haugan, director of the Department of Innovation and Technology for the City, told a council study session Monday night, it is time for city leaders to take the next step,

That is, time for the council to decide on the percentage of Auburn it wants to cover, and to set the time span within which the work happens.

“We’re at that point now where (we need) a decision so we can move forward to the budget process,” Haugan said.

Although there was little disagreement on the need to target low-income students, Councilmember Bill Peloza questioned whether the money could be put to better use elsewhere.

“It bothers me to put something like this through when we’ve got needed street repairs,” Peloza said.

In the end, council roughly concurred on 10 years to complete the project, but could not agree on the percentage of coverage.

That is, should the project be scaled back from 80 percent to as low as 50 percent coverage, an annual difference over 10 years, respectively, of $271,000 per year for 10 years to 135,550 each year for 10 years?

“We can’t put all our money into roads, we can’t put all our money into sidewalks,” said Councilmember Largo Wales. “I think that I can make a strong case, and I can go out and support to the community, being an educator and everything else, us hitting 50 percent because of the free-and-reduced lunch rate I can say that we are really helping the kids.”

Councilmember John Holman pushed for 80 percent, arguing that he could not accept the idea of abandoning 50 percent of low-income students to a digital disadvantage.

“My hope is that by advocating for 10 years and 80 percent, we can gain enough connectivity to make a generational impact,” Holman said, offering his personal opinion after the meeting. “The problem is you can’t deliver wireless to just low-income students without delivering WiFi to everyone else. So we target residential areas of town with high student populations and — using census data — lower family income. We target areas with high density and low income first. So the most bang for the buck comes earlier. As we continue to expand coverage, the number of students of poverty reached starts slowing down.”

IT planning in 2018 will target five high-value areas the Auburn School District has already provided.

Haugan said that the figures he offered are only best estimates based on current experience.

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