About a year ago, the Click! Network wired the first customers into its newborn fiber optic telecommunications network. Tacoma received national attention, as City officials took on the nation’s largest cable provider, TCI.

The most visible fight between Click! and TCI centered around cable television. Frustrated Tacoma cable customers faulted TCI over poor reception, few channels and poor customer service. However, the underlying conflict ran much deeper. As Tacoma faced the turn of the century, it began to wonder who would provide the infrastructure to ensure the city could compete in the data-intensive industries of the future?

Click! is currently working with local Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to make high-speed data communications via cable modems as possibility. Click! will not sell Internet access to businesses and consumers. Instead, Click! will lease its excess data transmission capacity to local ISPs —who will resell that capacity to customers.

“We’re currently in technical trials with several prominent local ISPs,” confirms Click! Government and Community Relations Manager Diane Lachel. “Unfortunately, I can’t begin to estimate when those trials may be finished. We want to make the service as seamless as possible, and we can’t put a deadline on something like that.”

Meanwhile, TCI has not stood idly by as this young competitor encroaches on its market. The company has built its own fiber optic cable system in Tacoma. “Our @Home (high speed Internet service) is available in all parts of Tacoma now,” advises TCI spokesman Steve Kipp. “It’s still not available outside of city limits, but we’re working on that right now.”

Additionally, if AT&T’s takeover of TCI meets regulatory approval, the company will probably eventually offer telephone service across the same fiber optic network.

Click! finds itself up against some pretty heavy hitters, considering that it’s origins were modest enough. In the course of studying a system upgrade for its electricity distribution network, executives at Tacoma Power (then Tacoma City Light) discovered that—by using fiber optic cable to monitor their own system—they could add capacity that would allow them to not only offer Tacoma residents a wide array of cable TV programming, but also create a digital backbone to support high-speed data communications across the region.

“We’ve traditionally been a smokestack, lunch-bucket town,” Tacoma City Light manager Steve Klein said, in a 1998 interview for Internet magazine Salon. “But smokestack towns have been dying and cities like us have to find a way to change. The utility created the Click! Network to offer an alternative to TCI’s cable service, then began negotiating with Internet Service Providers for high speed data connections, using cable modems.

“About 70 percent of our construction is completed across the city,” says Lachel. However, the actual installation of Click’s network is only the beginning. Additional testing must be done before sectors of the network can be brought online.

“We hope to have the construction completed by the end of this year,” Lachel adds,. “Service should be available to all residents of Tacoma by the first few months of next year.”

This constant activity has resulted in generating about 7,300 customers for Click, so far. Lachel estimates that only about 40 percent of Tacoma’s landscape is currently wired for their fiber-optic based services. At this rate, Click! could be well on its way to doubling its customer base, or more. Although TCI does not disclose subscribers by market, Kipp says the @Home network has about 100,000 users nationwide. Apparently, Click’s modest numbers stand up well in comparison to the giant conglomerate—and Tacoma need not worry that the future will pass it by this time.

By Christopher Hord, Business Examiner staff