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.