Can San Francisco Really Become a Gigabit City?

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By Bruce Wolfe, HANC President

Maybe third time’s the charm.  Fiber optics is an old technology that will outlive many of us as a stable and sustainable medium.  In the ‘80s, I personally explored it in car audio installations in one of my first of many businesses. You’ve heard me over the years reporting about it at membership meetings.

This month we heard and testified in support of a launch to once again attempt to bring San Francisco into the 21st century as a Gigabit City.  It was introduced by D2 Supervisor Mark Farrell.

In 2004, HANC joined with other community and environmental groups to form SF Clean Energy Advocates in what started the statewide struggle to implement Community Choice Energy with then Supervisor Tom Ammiano and other SF Supervisors.  This bold effort to overcome the big utility giant, PG&E, brought us to where we are today—in full embrace of the program CleanPowerSF.  Now more than ever, Community Choice Energy programs in every corner of California are bringing cleaner, cheaper and new renewable energy generation in a much needed time of climate and economic change.


At nearly the same time, HANC joined with other technologists and interested parties forming PublicNetSF coalition in seeking to bridge the Digital Divide after City College had pulled a large bundle of fiber optic cable for the People of SF over 40 miles around city. It was then be branded as Digital Inclusion to which then Mayor Gavin Newsom sought to launch an all WiFi-type of system which would have been obsolete by completion and launch. Many of us technology and industry professionals knew this and tried to convince him to redirect his focus on this new fiber network, but to no avail.

Then Supervisor Tom Ammiano launched an effort to bring fiber to the premises with the start of the SFPUC Sewer System Improvement Program; this brought some extensive, lengthy stretches through many neighborhoods.  Much politics and push back ensued, and, to say the least, our vision for a Public Internet got stalled.  Sound familiar? 

A few others Supervisors tried their hand over the same decade. Then Supervisor Chris Daly even tried to include undergrounding the electrical grid to replace the aged aerial utility lines.  This effort also proved to be of no avail.

Jump to 2014: The DigOnce ordinance was introduced to “require” just the empty conduit, the pipe, for fiber be installed any time the streets were dug up.  At the 11th hour, it was amended to be voluntary with no funding.  Again, failure.

Here we are once again.  In all these efforts, the Supervisors’ Legislative & Budget Analyst, along with outside consultants, who we will soon hear from, produce ample and expensive studies reporting feasibility and needs which show that we are way behind on implementation.  But, again, there has been no significant implementation to date with the exception of the little known Community Broadband Network that has been quietly connecting many low-income housing sites and library branches for many years.

It becomes very clear that market forces are healthy and always at play, especially with the advent of the Telecom statewide franchise agreement approved by the state legislature, where Big ISP (Internet Service Providers) can just drop in on any city and install infrastructure with little obstruction.  We are losing our say in the in the matter and slowly being stripped of the Public’s right to have its objections taken seriously. 

And now comes an attempt by D10 Supervisor Malia Cohen to circumvent and render our residents and businesses helpless by allowing a very large telephone-now-telecom company, AT&T, free reign once again to install those refrigerator-sized boxes on the sidewalks unfettered. Is “Ma Bell” back?

Just this week it has been reported, once again, Big ISP is seeking to legislatively and legally block whole states from installing Public Internet and increasing competition by leveling the playing field. This time it’s happening in West Virginia.

The time has come for this to stop and, again, courage, bravery and persistence is needed from the Mayor, Supervisors and all branches of government who must come together for all San Franciscans to bring this important 21st century utility to fruition before market forces has their way again.

It's time to light up SF and join other states in creating the Gigabit Cities.

(Note: Municipal Fiber Internet will be an ongoing report in the Voice and at membership meetings as new details arise. Breaking news after this got published: a new effort to underground electric is in play. This will definitely be companion to the fiber project.

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