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The Time Is Now for San Francisco Municipal Fiber, Says Report

The report, authored by San Franciscans for Municipal Fiber, argues that to properly address the digital divide and provide affordable, equitable Internet access, the city must begin building its own fiber network.

San Francisco is ready to take connectivity into their own hands. While the city has been working on deploying a municipal-owned fiber network, a group of city officials, academics, privacy experts and civic tech advocates released a report, saying the time in now.

The San Francisco Municipal Fiber Blue Ribbon Panel, published the Why Fiber? Should San Francisco Deploy a Fiber Broadband Network? report on June 19, in an effort to weigh the potential benefits against the costs. (Spoiler alert: They conclude that San Francisco should build out a fiber network.)

The report, written and approved by Harvard Law professor and committee co-chair Susan Crawford, and the rest of the panel’s subcommittee on technology and infrastructure, establishes why the city and county of San Francisco should play a greater role in the delivery of Internet access to its residents, and why it should build out a fiber-optic network to every home and business in San Francisco.

While the city may serve as a central technology hub — with tech giants like Salesforce, Twitter and Uber all based in the city, and Apple, Facebook and Adobe less than 50 miles south in Silicon Valley — there is still far too high a number of city residents without Internet connection at their household. More than 12 percent or 100,000 of residents lack home Internet, which includes 14 percent of all children enrolled in public school.

“We are working to ensure that robust Internet service is available to children looking to educate themselves, small businesses trying to expand their reach, and seniors seeking to access city services,” said Mayor Ed Lee and Supervisor Mark Farrell in a joint-Medium post. “This project aims to close the digital divide for the 100,000 San Franciscans, including 1 in 7 San Francisco public schoolchildren, who lack Internet access at home. Private industry has been unable to meet this need.”

The report also addresses the rising trend in families only connecting to the Internet through smartphones. While this is an option for basic Web access, often it is not a free choice, but one impacted by the price of a wired Internet plan. Web pages and applications are often not optimized for mobile users, so the entire Web experience is limited.

“It’s important to address the device divide; not just the connection divide,” said Catherine Sandoval, professor at Santa Clara Law School. “Families and individuals who rely solely on smartphones often face data caps and plan terms that constrain Internet use. Wired connections in the home can support multiple connections and don’t suffer from the same limitations.”

Building out their own network, the report argues, will also lower prices and increase competition of traditional Internet service providers. “The private market has little to no incentive to prioritize communities most affected by the digital divide,” the report reads. “While private companies will understandably focus on their own economic interests, local governments are more likely to consider a broader range of issues, such as ensuring service to the underserved.”

The report also brings up recent lobbying efforts by ISPs toward lowering privacy protections on personal data and eliminating net neutrality regulations, enforced by the Federal Communication Commission. By controlling a municipal network, San Francisco residents will not be subjected to providers blocking access to certain sites or throttling speeds of specific users.

This report is just the first in a series answering questions about why San Francisco should build out a municipal fiber network. According to the report, future documents will tackle issues like, “whether Internet access should be treated as a public utility; What business models are available to San Francisco to ensure any potential fiber-optic network is self-sufficient in the long term? What privacy, governance, net neutrality and security protocols will ensure ISPs that operate in San Francisco using such a fiber-optic facility deliver services that live up to San Francisco values?”

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.