fiber

When Google announced its list of 34 prospective new Google Fiber cities last Wednesday, some were baffled that the company had overlooked San Francisco.

This is, after all, supposed to be America’s technopolis: its capital of the future. And yet, in comparison to some other cities in the country — and the world — San Francisco’s Internet speeds remain embarrassingly slow. Residents of Kansas City, Mo or Chattanooga, Tn., or Lafayette, La., all have access to much faster connections. As do those in Riga, Latvia and Prague in the Czech Republic. More than 300 municipalities in the US are making headway toward faster community broadband, as is much of Europe and developed Asia. But not San Francisco.

The fact that four South Bay cities are among the 34 announced on Wednesday suggests that there’s something about San Francisco specifically, not California generally, that’s keeping Fiber away. And there is: Google knows San Francisco too well — and it’s been burned here before.

From 2004 to 2007, San Francisco jumped on board an ambitious proposal by Google and Earthlink to bring free, city-wide WiFi to the entire city, at no cost to taxpayers. The plan was announced, and championed, by then mayor Gavin Newsom, and gathered deep and broad support. In that pre-iPhone age, the move would put San Francisco way ahead of the curve, building a mobile broadband network that would have been the first of its kind in a major US city.

And then the project fell apart.

“That was a long and drawn-out fight,” says Brian Purchia, a new media analyst who worked as a tech spokesman for Newsom at the time.

The proposal stumbled and then drowned in the city planning process. Chris Sacca, who led the project for Google, publicly vented his frustrations over working with San Francisco officials. What should have taken months took years as the Board of Supervisors under Aaron Peskin dragged its feet. NIMBYism reared its head, with some residents opposing the installation of boxes on San Francisco’s historic, pristine… sidewalks.

Denouement: Google went on to develop a network infrastructure project completely in-house, without the liability of public partnerships, and sought out eager, less entangling locales. Almost a decade after Newsom’s first announcement, San Francisco’s government finally offered free mobile WiFi in public parks (supported by a $600,000 gift from Google) and along Market St.

“The scars from that are deep in San Francisco,” says Craig Settles, an industry analyst and host of Gigabit Nation, a radio program devoted to covering broadband. “The city government and the people of San Francisco felt burned and betrayed.”

Today, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee tends to deflect the fiber conversation by trumpeting the Market St. Wi-Fi rollout, which went live in December.  For all his eloquence about 21st-century civic leadership, the mayor is keen to gloss over discussions about infrastructure that matters. The trauma of the failed Google/Earthlink deal still haunts the city’s neighborhoods, and echoes through City Hall — and that’s before you factor in the continuing protests against Google buses. Just imagine what would happen if Google started digging up the streets.

Of course, it’s possible for fiber to be laid in US cities without help from a giant corporation like Google. But it takes a lot of public engagement, and a lot of political action. Settles says the energy required from politicians and voters to get community broadband going is like running an election campaign. “You need to generate a lot of noise, what the NSA calls chatter – public pronouncements of vision, neighborhood canvassing, calls, emails, tweets… and there’s an emotional aspect, you need to cast yourself as a liberator, saving people from the occupation by the incumbents,” says Settles.

While there are glimmers of hope for ultra high-speed internet coming to San Francisco, so far they are haphazard, unconnected and without the groundswell needed to really score big.

Sonic.net is making some headway on a pilot project to connect homes in the Outer Sunset to fiber wires providing 1gps service, and the company, which has a business fiber service underway in Sonoma county, represents a hungry, capable entrant into the ISP arena. Last month, Sonic CEO Dane Jasper posted enigmatically on the company’s San Francisco forum “we expect a number of fiber updates in the first half of 2014.”

Purchia says that despite the radio silence from City Hall, there is a lot of talk within the mayor’s office, the city Department of Technology and the Board of Supervisors about tackling fiber.

“It’s been worked on and investigated for a number of months, by lots of people,” he says.

Board of Supervisors President David Chiu introduced a plan last year for the city to lay fiber optic cable over the course of any unrelated infrastructure projects that required streets to be torn up. That legislation is currently being revised and should be presented to the Board of Supervisors for a vote in coming months. But the “Dig Once” plan comes too late to capitalize on recent substantial digs, and is more a trial balloon than major mobilization.

Judson True, an aide for Mr. Chiu, says that the city is already taking steps towards a more comprehensive project. “Right now, its a hot topic, and there is increasing recognition in city government that affordable, high capacity broadband is crucial for our economy. We’ve fallen behind and need to play catch up as fast as we can,” True says.

He said that the subject has been discussed in preliminary talks over the city’s two year budget which will be finalized this summer, and that Mr. Chiu and others see expanding high speed broadband as a great investment.

The city already operates 130 miles of “dark fiber” in San Francisco, which is currently used for municipal buildings, schools and all of San Francisco’s housing projects. The city also leases use of that network to hospitals and clinics. True says that there is real revenue potential in increasing the number of those leases.

That said, this has all been proceeding quietly and mostly behind closed doors so far. There has not been a request for a specific proposal, no public statement of purpose, no needs assessment process or town hall meetings – things that normally precede the big push needed to get a municipal broadband project going. San Francisco voters too have been strangely silent. This is in contrast to cities like Sacramento, where a group called SacHackerLab has pushed the conversation forward through grassroots advocacy. In San Leandro and Hayward, advocacy groups like the East Bay Broadband Consortium have been holding community meetings to highlight the need for access.  Despite San Francisco’s teeming ecology of coders, whose work is undermined and emotions destabilized daily by subpar service, there is little visible momentum here.

True says that in addition to getting the policy right, city officials need to restart the public conversation. All of this suggests that political will for expanding the city-owned fiber network is growing, cautiously. And while there is no timeline yet for such a project, there is something like a tentative timeline for agreeing on a timeline.

Perhaps San Francisco is a victim of its own economic success. Yes, Internet service is slow here, but the city finds itself at the epicenter of an economic boom, so perhaps there’s a feeling that things are OK as they are. Meanwhile the cities screaming loudest for super-fast Internet are the ones who hope attracting tech companies will solve existing economic problems.

The counter argument, of course, is that boom time is exactly when San Francisco should be investing in its future infrastructure. Laying fiber in the city today would help future-proof the city against changes in the tech industry and assuage bubble fears. And amid the anti-tech backlash it might also be an olive branch to local residents: a tangible example of tech effecting the public good.

[Photo credit: Fiber (not in San Francisco) — Shuli Hallak (Creative Commons)]