From Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Santa Monica, California, hundreds of communities in the U.S. have been able to provide consumers and businesses with affordable broadband over locally owned and controlled fiber and coaxial networks.
But San Francisco, the epicenter of the digital revolution, can’t match the success of these smaller municipalities, many with far fewer resources and civic wealth. San Francisco is not alone. While publicly owned fiber networks work well in smaller towns, not a single big U.S. city has been able to replicate the success of cities elsewhere in the world. Stockholm, Seoul, Tokyo, and Amsterdam all have fast, affordable broadband, riding on networks that are either publicly owned, controlled, or shared as the result of government intervention.
San Francisco, of course, is a highly connected city–for its digital elites. For others, not so much. According to a report prepared by the city in 2016, some 100,000 San Franciscans have no access to internet connectivity at home, while an additional 50,000 residents are stuck with archaic dial-up connections. Even the elites, however, typically have little choice for high-speed broadband internet access. “It’s simply criminal,” says former San Francisco mayor Mark Farrell, who led a failed effort to build a locally owned broadband network designed to break this logjam.
Farrell kicked off the project while on the city’s Board of Supervisors: He commissioned a study, set up a fancy web page, and appointed a blue-ribbon advisory panel to assist him. The city accepted the report of an outside consultant, laying out a road map with multiple paths to municipal fiber. In October 2017, a member of the panel, broadband maven Susan Crawford, announced to the world that “San Francisco [has become] the first major city in America to pledge to connect all of its homes and businesses to a fiber-optic network.” But by April 2018, the project was dead.
What happened in just six months? Farrell had been appointed interim mayor, held stakeholder meetings and an “industry day,” and sent out a Request for Qualifications to possible city concessionaires in a public-private partnership scheme to build the system. But city officials blanched when they saw the price tag–approximately $1.8 billion.
Meanwhile, according to Farrell and others involved with the process, there was a full-on lobbying push by the incumbent telecom and cable operators to keep out new competition. “All of those companies [the incumbent ISPs] had a presence in City Hall and spent significant resources to block the project,” Farrell says.
Why can’t a wealthy and digitally-savvy city such as San Francisco provide affordable broadband for its more than 800,000 inhabitants, when other cities in the U.S. and around the world can? The answers aren’t simple, but San Francisco’s failure mirrors the feeble state of broadband in the United States:
Competition is sparse. Despite the rosy promises made at the time of the 1996 deregulation of telecommunications, there are fewer competitors today than there were in 2000, and successful new entrants are few and far between. Many households have only one or two broadband providers available to them, and those wanting something faster than last-century DSL are often stuck with no choice other than the monopoly cable provider.
The incumbent players have political clout. Entrenched ISPs lobby hard to block new competitors from entering the broadband market and use campaign donations to sway state legislators against municipal broadband.
ISPs hog the poles. Incumbent telcos and cable companies often enlist the utilities that own the poles and conduit in order to prevent would-be market entrants from sharing those structures. Without the use of the infrastructure, it can be too costly for a new competitor to enter the market. In San Francisco, AT&T and PG&E own nearly all of the telephone poles and usable conduit, and are loath to share them with upstarts like Sonic, the largest independent ISP in San Francisco. “Digging a trench can cost hundreds of dollars a foot. It’s simply not competitive for us to do that,” says Sonic CEO Dane Jasper.
The 1996 Telecom Act deregulation was supposed to create a competitive market, but the opposite, market consolidation, has been the long-term result. In rural areas, there has simply been no commercial business case to build high-speed broadband. In urban areas, competition has been suppressed by the large cable and broadband providers sitting at the top of the food chain.
Big players such as AT&T routinely issue press releases touting new deployments. But on closer examination, many of those touch only a few homes or businesses in an entire census tract, thus inflating the actual scope of the deployment, says Joanne Hovis, the president of CTC Technology & Energy, the company that prepared the broadband report for San Francisco. “The FCC’s data is very flawed,” she says.
What’s more, roughly half of the new fiber deployments cited recently by the FCC were mandated as a condition for approval of AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV, says Ernesto Falcon, legislative counsel with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. And deployments have slowed because the major players have already cherry-picked the neighborhoods that offer the best prospects for high-paying customers, he says.
All in all, says Falcon, there’s a major disconnect between reality and the success of broadband deployments painted by the FCC and the major ISPs. “If what you want is a choice of slow, outdated internet, then the United States market looks great,” he says.
This market failure has driven cities and locales large and small to think about building their own fiber networks. Whatever the exact mechanism, it means either that the city or city electric utility builds the network and gets into the retail broadband business, as happened in Chattanooga, or that the city builds or sponsors a wholesale-only network on which many competing providers can ride.
The project proposed by San Francisco mayor Farrell was of the wholesale variety, where the concessionaire would run a fiber network that would be shared by a number of retail providers who then provide service to their end users.
These sorts of sharing arrangements have worked in other parts of the world–in Stockholm and Amsterdam, for example. In Japan and Korea, the governments largely subsidized such networks. In the U.K., the regulator simply ordered British Telecom (BT) to create a wholesale division, and make fiber and other facilities available on the same terms and conditions as BT retail received.
Accurate broadband pricing information is hard to come by. Comcast’s prices change from day to day and from customer to customer. Even so, most reliable studies demonstrate that muni fiber is less expensive for consumers. Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, for example, found that “most community-owned FTTH networks charged less and offered prices that were clear and unchanging, whereas private ISPs typically charged initial low promotional or ‘teaser’ rates that later sharply rose, usually after 12 months.”
In Chattanooga, an entry-level consumer pays $58 a month for 300 Mbps service, and speeds of up to 10 Gbps are available.
The hidden story of San Francisco’s failure
When Mark Farrell took his seat on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in 2010, he quickly learned that the city’s digital infrastructure was woefully inadequate. “It blew my mind to discover that we were still using Lotus Notes,” he said recently, referring to the obsolete remnant of computing’s client-server era.
But there was worse to come. With plenty of Silicon Valley cred on his resume, Farrell figured his plan to bring affordable, locally owned broadband to the city would have strong support from the tech industry. It didn’t.
In fact, angel investor Ron Conway, one of San Francisco techdom’s best-connected figures, contributed $15,000 to two supervisors who then argued against the proposal, according to reporting by 48 Hills and the San Francisco Chronicle. SF.citi, a tech-heavy industry group, that included Conway and two AT&T executives on its board, lobbied hard against Farrell. And Comcast lobbyist Scott Adams made 16 visits to City Hall between late 2014 and 2017 to discuss matters relating to broadband deployment, according to records at San Francisco’s Ethics Commission.
“They came up with every excuse in the book; from large costs to the fact that their companies could provide that low-income access,” Farrell says. “If it had come to a vote we would have won.” But it never did come to a vote, and once Farrell left office, the project was quietly shelved.
The money spent by incumbent ISPs to defeat affordable broadband in San Francisco was relatively modest, and it pales in comparison to the much larger sums directed at state legislators around the country.
State Senator Scott Weiner, (D-San Francisco), wrote a statute restoring Net Neutrality to California, but his bill was gutted by Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, who chairs the Assembly Conveyance and Communications Committee. Santiago received over $66,000 from communications carriers in the several years before this vote, while other Committee members voting for the amendments received from $23,000 to $102,000 each. (The meat of the bill was restored by a subsequent vote.)
When Time Warner Cable and Embarq (now CenturyLink) couldn’t provide affordable, high-speed broadband, the residents of Wilson, a small town in North Carolina, decided to do it themselves. In 2006, Wilson built a municipally owned fiber-to-the-home network that offers television, telephone, and broadband services at relatively low cost.
In response, Time Warner cut rates and boosted speeds a bit–but that’s not all. The cable giant, along with allies AT&T and CenturyLink, poured more than $1 million into the campaign coffers of North Carolina politicians, according to a report by Common Cause and the Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR). In 2011, the lobbying effort paid off: The state legislature passed a bill making it nearly impossible for other communities to build their own broadband networks.
Eight years later, there are still at least 20 states that have banned municipal broadband, according to Chris Mitchell, director of the ILSR’s community broadband initiative. And there are few, if any, signs that the big ISPs are loosening their hold, particularly in the most lucrative urban markets. “If the incumbents will fight that hard to block municipal broadband in a small North Carolina town, think how hard they’ll fight in a city like San Francisco,” says Hovis.
Not surprisingly, AT&T sees it differently: “Private sector deployment of broadband is proven to be the most efficient solution to deliver high-speed internet service to residential and business customers,” says AT&T spokesman Ben Golombek. The broadband market, he says, “is very competitive.” (Comcast did not respond to a request for comment.)
Dig they must
Broadband is a digital technology, of course, but the process of delivering it to a community is decidedly analog. Fiber cables need to be strung from telephone poles or buried under the street. In neighborhoods where utilities are above ground and the owners of the poles don’t object, bringing fiber to homes and businesses isn’t terribly expensive. But digging a trench is costly, difficult, and time-consuming.
And that’s turned into a huge roadblock for the deployment of fiber networks. Blocked from using some of the city’s telephone poles by rivals and not allowed to use modern methods of laying cable under the street, Sonic’s plans to connect San Franciscans to a fiber network have been slowed, says CEO Jasper. “Anything that raises the cost of deployment slows deployment,” he says.
According to Jasper, digging a conventional trench for fiber costs anywhere from $50 a foot to $500 a foot. But modern construction methods known as microtrenching and horizontal drilling cost the provider just $15 to $35 a foot. Although these methods have been proven to work in other cities, San Francisco doesn’t allow them. Even so, Sonic has managed to put fiber service in reach of roughly one-third of all the homes in the city, though its customer base is much smaller.
One partial solution to the high cost of deployment is so-called “dig-once” policies that require open-access conduit be installed any time a street is opened for water, sewer, or other repairs. San Francisco has such a policy on paper, and even the current FCC has toyed with the idea. But in San Francisco, at least, the project ordinance was never adequately funded.
San Francisco has made a bit of headway on Farrell’s dreams of a connected city. The city has assisted in connecting 1,424 units of low-income housing to a free fiber network and expects to connect an additional 765 units this year, according to Brian Roberts, a senior analyst in San Francisco’s Department of Technology.
But that’s barely a ripple in a city of this size. Until the FCC and other agencies push for more competition, and state legislatures shake off the influence of the giant ISPs and cable companies, the United States will be stuck with second-rate connectivity.
San Francisco-based journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. Chris Witteman was telecom counsel for the California Public Utilities Commission for over 17 years and still consults with the commission as a retired annuitant.