San Francisco Ponders The Largest Community Broadband Network Ever Built

from the if-you-build-it-they-will-come dept

Despite being considered one of the technology capitals of the country, San Francisco and the Bay Area continue to suffer from a lack of broadband options -- just like the rest of us sorry sods. If they're lucky, most locals there still only have the option of one of two large ISPs: AT&T and Comcast. Both companies have a long, proud history of fighting competition tooth and nail, often by quite literally writing shitty state telecom law that ensures the status quo remains intact. Attempts to break through this logjam and bring faster, better broadband service to the city have seen decidedly mixed results.

Like most areas, ultra-fast next-generation broadband in particular is notably lacking. Some estimates suggest that just 2.6% of San Francisco residents have access to gigabit broadband service. Sonic CEO Dane Jasper, whose company is also busy deploying gigabit services to the Bay Area, tells me he believes those figures are stale and gigabit penetration rates in the city are closer to 17%. And while Google Fiber had tinkered with the idea of bringing fiber to the city, the company's pivot to wireless has left that added avenue of competition up in the air.

Last week, numerous Mayors and city officials in California and Arizona penned a letter to AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, complaining that not only is AT&T not upgrading many DSL customers to fiber, they're not adequately maintaining existing copper (now that AT&T's primary focus appears to be media, and acquiring Time Warner):

"All too many Californians and Nevadans have waited far too long for AT&T to build the high-speed broadband infrastructure promised to them," the officials said in a letter to AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson. "Not only is AT&T failing to provide access to 21st-century high-speed connections to many communities, but it is also not maintaining the copper lines that are vital to landline phone access, 911 and emergency services and basic Internet service."

For most of the last fifteen years, bubbling under the surface of this dysfunction, a growing number of cities have decided to bypass broadband's duopoly and just build next-generation, citywide broadband networks from scratch. That effort received renewed attention this week in San Francisco when the city announced it was convening a panel of "business, privacy and academic experts" to debate and discuss just what such a network would look like. On that panel will be Harvard Law School Professor Susan Crawford, who has been consistently at the forefront of criticizing this country's broken broadband market.

The panel has been tasked with how best to build a network capable of delivering gigabit speeds at more reasonable prices:

In the coming months, the San Francisco Municipal Fiber Blue Ribbon Panel will conduct research and provide recommendations on the most efficient and effective ways to blanket the city with broadband, an effort that could cost up to $1 billion.

If it becomes reality, San Francisco would be the largest city in the country to implement citywide high-speed Internet. City officials are currently targeting speeds of 1 gigabit per second. The average Internet speed in the U.S. is 31 megabits per second according to the most recent data published by the Federal Communications Commission, so this could be about 30 times faster.

The problem is convincing people to pay for it. Seattle has spent the better part of the last fifteen years pondering its own network after being historically disappointed by ISPs like Comcast and CenturyLink. But locals have consistently shied away from funding such a massive project -- especially given the city's current focus on shoring up mass transit ahead of an ongoing population boom. Incumbent ISP lobbying also consistently tangles these efforts with disinformation and legal shenanigans, usually adding additional costs as the cities have to deal with lawsuits and other pay-to-play regulatory headaches.

We've long noted how while municipal broadband is often demonized, it's a perfectly organic reaction to market failure -- and if companies truly want to keep towns and cities from getting into the broadband business, the solution should be fairly obvious: provide better, cheaper broadband.


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  • identicon
    WeirdBuild, 20 Mar 2017 @ 1:29pm

    They'll have broadband but no home to put it in

    Ironic that they plan to build out their broadband at a time when people can't afford to buy let alone rent property.

    So the question I have is this, will it help citizens or business. To answer my own question, it will help business.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Mar 2017 @ 1:35pm

    They need to do a campaign that talks about the cost of a gigabit package compared to their overflated package with ATT or Comcast and its severe limitations. People are paying millions more in fees for a limited service right now. Switch the money to build a new system that will allow them to have great internet for a fraction of what it costs them now. I keep seeing Sonic advertisement about gigabit speed for $40.00.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Mar 2017 @ 1:37pm

    "Seattle ... historically disappointed by ISPs like Comcast and CenturyLink"

    Wow, shocking, join the club Seattle.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    My_Name_Here, 20 Mar 2017 @ 1:44pm

    I think that all of this has a bit of a smell to it, the smell of waste of taxpayer dollars, corruption, and payoffs. Why? Quite simply if there was a valid and functional business model for higher speed internet in that community, there would be a line up of companies willing to offer it.

    It looks like one of those nice sink holes where government officials can shovel a ton of money to build something, and then shovel a whole bunch money every year to maintain. Perhaps they can even create a "municipal broadband office" with a bunch of political toadies getting nice jobs with big salaries and huge retirement payouts as rewards for sucking up at election time.

    San Fran and the area have huge issues with a lack of affordable housing, and zoning bylaws which discourage anyone doing anything about it. In any other same marketplace, there would a be turn towards multi unit buildings to satisfy demands. Instead, what you get (because of a lack of incentive to build or convert) is people live multiples to a single story home.

    Broadband is nice, but it's not a "first on the list" thing for an area that has huge and obvious problems in taking care of it's citizens.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Wendy Cockcroft, 22 Mar 2017 @ 7:16am

      Re:

      The trouble isn't with the lack of "a valid and functional business model for higher speed internet in that community," it's the lack of competition. It's a market failure problem.

      The city isn't taking care of its citizens because it's not taking in enough money to care for them with because the rich don't want to pay their share of taxes for services they don't use, e.g. public housing. It's a revenue problem.

      Both of these problems are due to scare-mongering over the S-word. Socialism. Stop scare-mongering over that and watch the situation change.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    PlagueSD (profile), 20 Mar 2017 @ 1:50pm

    The problem is convincing people to pay for it.

    Well, now that marijuana is legal in California, we can use some of that tax money to fund this. Just look at Colorado. They made so much on taxes, they actually had to give some back to the residents...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 20 Mar 2017 @ 2:16pm

      Re:

      That might work, if the Feds don't decide to impose their will on the states (expected any day now), or more to the point the sellers and growers of marijuana, the users being too small to bother with unless they get something else as well.

      Of course, the states might get together and decide that they all want some of that tax action and force Congress to change federal law. One can only hope.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Mar 2017 @ 3:22pm

    a simple question ...

    At Google's current rate of ISP service expansion, how long would it be before all major metropolitan areas in the USA would have access?

    A hundred years? A thousand?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), 20 Mar 2017 @ 4:49pm

    Blue Ribbon Competition

    Meanwhile, the joint AT&T/Comcast Munificent Blue Ribbon panel is conducting research and providing recommendations on how to spend up to $2 billion blanketing Sacramento with legions of lobbyists.

    After all, these benevolent corporations must protect the helpless citizens of California from evil government overreach.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 20 Mar 2017 @ 5:21pm

    Didnt?

    Diddnt our gov . Pay these service TWICE in the last 15 years to UPGRADE EVERYTHING???

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      discordian_eris (profile), 20 Mar 2017 @ 6:30pm

      Re: Didnt?

      Yes, we should all have at least 100/100 Mb connections. The telecoms gave all that money to their shareholders instead. If you actually look at the conditions that were placed on them there are so many weasel words it is positively insane.

      Prime example of why NO company should ever be allowed to write legislation.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Shel10 (profile), 20 Mar 2017 @ 8:45pm

    SF Broadband

    This will never happen. About 10 years ago, Google offered to build a free wireless network for the City. The City officials gave Google a hard time regarding administrative issues. Google walked.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Lauren, 20 Mar 2017 @ 8:51pm

    SF muni network

    They'll consider "private development" or a "public-private partnership" for building the network. I see another big fat contract with the city in AT&T's future. http://www.policyworks.us/MuniFranchise.html

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 21 Mar 2017 @ 5:36am

    "the solution should be fairly obvious: provide better, cheaper broadband."

    Silly. The solution is to write worse laws. It's cheaper than upgrading the network.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Mar 2017 @ 5:52am

    Stop the Graft Machine

    Tax breaks canceled retroactively - here's your bill brought up to date with interest.

    For years, AT&T, Comcast, et al. have promised infrastructural improvements without ever carrying through. In many instances, these promises were made to municipal and state governments in exchange for reduced taxes. Enforce the contract. Make them pay their back taxes. If they refuse, condemn and seize the local assets and lease them to a new provider or take them over as a municipal service.

    Stop letting these thieving corporations and their politician lackeys line their pockets at our expense and inconvenience.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Mar 2017 @ 9:49am

    This is after a local ISP deployed fiber to roughly 30% of the city for $40/month.

    https://www.sonic.com/gigabit

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    David Hoffman, 21 Mar 2017 @ 2:09pm

    SF FTTH

    The problem is these community committees in California always underestimate the cost of a project by 90%. Scores of environmental reviews, community impact reviews, differently abled reviews, political patronage handout reviews, etc. All drive up the cost.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    W. Vann Hall (profile), 21 Mar 2017 @ 9:16pm

    The State of Brotherly Love

    Last week, numerous Mayors and city officials in California and Arizona penned a letter to AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson[...].

    "All too many Californians and Nevadans have waited far too long[...]"

    Aw, nice of those Arizonans to be concerned for their northwestern neighbors...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Mononymous Tim (profile), 22 Mar 2017 @ 1:02pm

    Seattle has spent the better part of the last fifteen years pondering its own network after being historically disappointed by ISPs like Comcast and CenturyLink. But locals have consistently shied away from funding such a massive project -- especially given the city's current focus on shoring up mass transit ahead of an ongoing population boom.

    Yeah, that's Washington's own stupid fault. I lived south of Tacoma from '72 to '97 and NEVER was the Seattle/Tacoma area ahead of the curve when it came to preparing for the populating needing to get from one place to another. And even when they did do something about it, it took FOREVER to complete anything. One rain drop and "Oh, we can't work!" Traffic problems were one of the big reasons Boeing moved their headquarters out of south Seattle. A lot of Boeing workers lived in Gig Harbor, which is on the other side of Tacoma from Seattle, so that whole I-5/SR-16 corridor was a big clogged up mess that took forever to get through. Too little, too late.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Jon M. Kellet, 19 May 2017 @ 10:44pm

    AT&T/Comcast Munificent Blue Ribbon panel

    On the other coast, Anne Arundel County, Maryland have most every "AT&T/Comcast Munificent" whatever. as well as a "trying harder" local. Our neighbors & ourselves, having tried the "Blue Ribbon" have chosen the local. So, far the "Blue Ribbon" really have tried harder (at least At&T, I don't think that Comcast really knows how), but they really don't like customer feedback. Comcast actually told us to do things their way or leave. With 3 sets of cable/internet/phone companies in our front yard, we left. Yes, we would like a fourth choice (local broadband), but our politicians don't typically agree with our noon-Maryland vote.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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