The wait for better broadband

I had a chance to meet Qwest's boss last week and ask him what's up with the mediocre broadband his company's providing in Seattle.

The conversation with Dick Notebaert helped me understand why the city is looking for someone else — maybe Paul Allen — to build its next broadband network.

Notebaert can't be pinned down on his plans for Seattle, not while Qwest is still recovering from its costly attempts to be cutting edge in the late 1990s.

That makes it hard for Seattle to plan for its future, but the city shouldn't ignore his words of caution as it rushes to subsidize another telecom venture.

No matter how many times I asked, I couldn't get Notebaert to say if, when or how Qwest would provide the ultra-fast broadband that most other phone companies are rolling out. They're upgrading to compete with cable and online services, building networks that deliver high-definition video.

Mayor Greg Nickels and his tech advisers are fretting that Seattle will be left behind while Qwest dithers. They're working on a scheme to subsidize a new, privately owned broadband network using city infrastructure, even parks and open space if necessary.

Qwest already provides broadband in the city, but nowhere near the 25 megabits per second the city wants. Most homes can get 1.5 Mbps DSL, and some can get 7 Mbps, but you need at least 10 Mbps for high-quality video.

Notebaert implied that Qwest will come through with faster broadband when customers are ready. He said 55 percent of Seattle-area Internet users are still using dial-up services, and haven't upgraded to the DSL and cable services available.

"If the customer says 'I'm ready,' we're going to pour it on," he said.

That's as much of a commitment to fast broadband as I could get.

I asked when he expects customers to be ready for 10 to 25 megabits per second.

"I can see over the next couple of years — say three to five — customers will want 10 and then going to 25," Notebaert said.

Does that mean that Qwest will be providing 10 to 25 Mbps in three to five years?

"You asked an individual's opinion — the customer in the focus groups we do constantly will determine the timeline, not my opinion."

OK. He's clearly not a "build it and they will come" kind of guy.

A careful telecom veteran is probably just what Qwest needs.

The Denver-based company is still trying to get past a dotcom-era spending binge that left it with $26.5 billion in debt.

Notebaert became chief executive in 2002. Although Qwest is losing a million phone customers a year, he has cut the debt to around $15 billion and reported profits the past two quarters.

Slow and steady isn't what Seattle broadband boosters want to hear. This place has always been insecure about being left behind, and it's used to visionary executives who talk about placing big bets and getting big fast.

The city is also exasperating. It's been slow to provide key public records — the broadband proposals from other companies.

One of those companies is owned by Allen, the polar opposite of Notebaert.

Before he became a Seattle real-estate mogul and City Hall bigfoot, Allen lost a big part of his fortune on overly optimistic investments in broadband, mostly in Charter Communications, a St. Louis cable company that's not much better off than Qwest.

There may be a middle ground, but don't expect progress until the players are more forthcoming.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or