Optical fiber was just implemented successfully last week in the city of San Francisco to connect the homes and businesses to a fiber optic network. It has become the first major city in America to accomplish this feat. It’s believed to be a huge step forward toward the future.
Apart from providing world-class data connectivity at a reasonable price, this step will provide considerable help in advanced healthcare, in the emergence of new forms of industries, in creating chances for every child to get educated, in managing the use of energy, and on and on.
The existing internet provider of the city, Comcast, is good at downloads but not so great at uploads. Still, it costs $150 per month. AT&T says its upgradation to fiber in San Francisco is going on. To date, the progress in many other US cities has been mainly confined to areas with existing business customers to serve or where it already has fiber. Other, smaller providers similarly have no plans to do a city-wide upgradation.
Just as in the rest of the country, poorer and less-well-educated San Franciscans tend to rely wholly on smartphone data plans—there are no substitutes, given their expense and throttled capacity, for what’s possible using a wired connection.
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It’s taken San Francisco a number of lessons, like in the era of Bill Murray’s Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, to gather both sufficient expertise and the political will to move ahead. Ten years ago, the much-hyped city partnership with Google and Earthlink for a city-wide wifi network failed due to inexperience on all sides. 8 years ago, a city-commissioned report recommended a fiber network, but plans didn’t proceed because of a lack of leadership and the absence of a concrete plan.
Last week, Mayor Ed Lee and Supervisor Mark Farrell released a substantial report from expert consultant CTC Technology & Energy that essentially provides a detailed, thorough blueprint for the fiber network.
This CTC document is a pioneering and carefully nuanced study that boasts of a range of public-private options for network construction and suggests that the city separate “dark” from “lit” fiber planning with the “dark” fiber being the passive public works, like construction of basic fiber infrastructure and the “lit” fiber being the retail data-flow internet access service to customers.
The report states that the city would issue a franchise to a private company to build a dark fiber network, adding to the existing, to reach every home and business and then would turn around and have a publicly controlled entity lease that fiber to private operators. Private operators will have the job of installing the required electronics that “light” the network to connect customers to the internet.
The city would be providing basic infrastructure that any company could use—the connectivity equivalent of a city street grid. The cost to the public of borrowing the money to build this basic network, estimated at about $1.5 billion by CTC, would be significantly decreased by leasing revenue from advance arrangements with operators. The city would subsidize low-income residents wishing to subscribe to fiber services from those private operators.
This suggestion effectively removes any political argument that the city is somehow undermining the private market for internet access services. The dark fiber public-private partnership would also lower the cost for the private market by directly serving customers in a competitive environment.
This new technology should be a utility, available to everyone. After years of study, San Francisco has finally taken this step. We do hope that others get inspired by them.