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San Francisco reveals latest #Resist effort – resisting sub-gigabit internet access

City puts together team to bring 1Gbps dark fiber to Bay Area

By Kieren McCarthy, 15 Mar 2017

The City of San Francisco has already put in place numerous plans to resist the policies of the Trump Administration – from immigration to healthcare to labor agreements. Now it is moving on to internet access.

Supervisor Mark Farrell has set up a "blue ribbon panel" to look at how to get the City by the Bay wired up with super-fast fiber that will offer gigabit speeds at vastly reduced costs.

Farrell will co-chair the panel with Harvard Law School Professor Susan Crawford, who has become a figurehead of a movement to introduce dark fiber across the United States as a way of bypassing the current oligopoly of cable providers that offer slower and more expensive internet access than almost all comparable Western nations.

They will be joined by managing director of Stanford's Global Project Center, Michael Bennon, former California Public Utilities Commissioner Catherine Sandoval, and others from Bay Area law schools, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

At the heart of the panel's discussions will be how to implement a citywide high-speed internet offering 1Gbps. "As we move forward, thinking about municipal fiber in San Francisco, I thought it was important to bring together a group of nationally renowned academic scholars to evaluate a wide variety of questions that we, as a city, should answer," Farrell was quoted as saying.

The key issues to be looked at are:

  • How to finance what would likely be a $1bn project.
  • How a network should be operated: as a public utility or a private company.
  • How to make the network safe.

These are not new questions, but they have taken on greater significance with a clear shift at the US comms watchdog, the FCC, away from net neutrality and toward Big Cable, with the scrapping of several rules and provisions due to go into effect and the repeating of Big Cable talking points almost verbatim by new chair Ajit Pai.

Launch

This reporter was present at the launch of Crawford's book Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age in San Francisco back in 2014. The book has served as the rallying text for those looking for a better, faster and cheaper alternative for internet access.

At the time, Crawford was cautiously optimistic that new FCC chair Tom Wheeler would introduce policies to protect the neutrality of the internet, despite him being a lifelong lobbyist for the wireless industry. She turned out to be right.

She was not correct, however, when she welcomed the arrival of Google Fiber – which promised to bring unlit fiber to US cities – as heralding a new era of uncontrolled, fast and lower-cost bandwidth.

The decision to directly challenge Comcast and Time Warner Cable by digging up the ground and installing fiber optic cable "amounts to a religious war in American telecom land," she enthused, which would bring real competition to a huge market.

This Tuesday, almost a year to the day later, Crawford attempted a little bit of history rewriting when she wrote that "Google Fiber was doomed from the start." She outlined her view that the answer was never going to be a for-profit company but will require local, state and eventually federal policies and massive investment to install a whole new infrastructure akin to subway systems, railways, and telephone networks.

It's all about the money

The issues are well known but the solutions are persistently difficult to introduce.

First off, the sheer cost of digging up streets and physically installing cable provides such an enormous barrier to entry that even a company as big as Google could not justify it for very long.

And you do need to dig up streets and lay cable. As every internet engineer knows, every wireless box has to find its way to a wired connection. The only stable network is one with physical wires at its center.

As such, installing that much cable is a long-term proposition that may never make a profit. Which is why – if it's going to happen – it needs to fit firmly into the public sector bucket along with things like public transport and roads.

It is, to Crawford's eyes, a pure infrastructure play: you'll be hard pressed to make money directly from it, but the resulting extra economic activity that will result from it will pay off massively over time.

It is hard to argue with this proposition in those terms, for the simple reason that an enormous number of other Western countries at the local and national levels have reached the exact same conclusion and many have announced huge national plans – with varying degrees of success.

The problem of course is the unique pro-private sector and anti-government perspective of the United States – something that is in particularly strong force in Washington for at least the next four years.

Legislative efforts

Efforts to pass large infrastructure spending bills faltered repeatedly under the Obama Administration, thanks in large part to fierce opposition by the Republican Party opposed to such high levels of central spending. That may change under President Trump, seeing as he made huge investments in the country's ailing systems a constant talking point during the election process.

Whether Trump can get such an infrastructure bill past Congress is one question, whether he can include internet infrastructure in that – considering that he will be faced with an enormous lobbying effort from very powerful Big Cable forces in Washington – is quite another.

And so, realistically, any projects will need to come at the city and state level – a situation made all the harder by the fact that Big Cable has been very effectively lobbying state legislatures to introduce new laws that prevent municipal networks from getting off the ground.

If there is any place that can do it right now, however, it is California and San Francisco – which have the money, the demand, the risk-taking potential and the political will to go against the prevailing mood. Which is why, presumably, Crawford is willing to join an effort on the opposite side of the country from where she's based.

The idea, the goal, is simple: fiber optic cables installed all across a city offering a wholesale service to anyone who wants to set themselves up as a retailer to customers.

But to get to that point, local government – in this case the City of San Francisco – is basically going to have to be persuaded to put aside hundreds of millions, perhaps even billions of dollars to pay for it.

Advocates will argue it will usher in an era of super-fast, super-cheap internet access that will drive economic growth; critics will argue it will end up being an enormous boondoggle, paid for by taxpayers, with little real gain. By the time the network is completed, Comcast will offer the same speeds at roughly the same price – why have central government do the job of the more efficient and flexible private sector?

And that is the argument that Supervisor Mark Farrell, law professor Susan Crawford and the San Francisco Municipal Fiber Blue Ribbon Panel will be attempting to win this year. ®

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