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Supervisor Wants San Francisco to Seize Opening to Lay Wi-Fi Cable

Supervisor David Chiu’s “Dig Once” proposal would require private and public agencies digging up streets for other work to allow the placement of city-owned conduits that can be used for fiber-optic cables.

San Francisco officials have long dreamed of a citywide free Wi-Fi network but so far have only been able to offer public Internet access at select locations such as parks and the airport.

Now, a city supervisor is pushing an ordinance that will move the city in the direction of speedy, publicly owned Internet service — albeit slowly.

Supervisor David Chiu’s “Dig Once” proposal would require private and public agencies digging up streets for other work to allow the placement of city-owned conduits that can be used for fiber-optic cables.

The city already has about 140 miles of subterranean fiber providing Internet and Wi-Fi service to hundreds of public buildings such as City Hall, police stations, public housing developments and some senior centers. Recently, city officials announced that Google would be paying for the equipment to provide free Wi-Fi access at 32 city parks for two years, access that relies on the existing fiber system.

Seeking to bridge divide

Chiu said the change in law, co-sponsored by Supervisor Scott Wiener, that the Board of Supervisors will consider Tuesday will allow the city to build out its own fiber network steadily while saving money and traffic headaches by piggybacking on existing excavations. He said he hopes it will allow San Francisco to help bridge the “digital divide” by eventually letting residents and businesses access fast, inexpensive, city-owned broadband service.

And unlike in other cities and states where broadband utilities have fought the expansion of public networks, the Chamber of Commerce and utilities such as Comcast and AT&T have agreed to stay neutral on the bill.

“Quality broadband service is no longer a luxury — it’s a necessity for our economy and our education system. You need access to high-speed broadband to compete, just as you needed access to water, roads and electricity in the 20th century,” Chiu said, noting that the United States lags behind smaller countries “when it comes to speed and reliability.”

Case-by-case basis

The city’s Department of Technology will oversee the project and evaluate individual excavation sites to determine whether it’s worth it for the city to install fiber conduit at that location. If the department wants to lay conduit while, say, PG&E is fixing underground gas lines, the public will pay for the additional materials and labor costs.

It will only apply to excavations longer than 900 linear feet, or about three city blocks — a key provision that utilities fought to include, said Chamber of Commerce Vice President of Public Policy Dee Dee Workman.

While city leaders have in the past championed an entirely free, citywide Wi-Fi network, that sort of blanket public access is rare, said Chris Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. The group fights for the rights of communities to build their own networks, and has seen Comcast, Verizon and other private utilities push laws and lawsuits in other states barring public agencies from creating networks, he said.

An estimated 1,000 cities across the nation follow San Francisco’s current model: using fiber primarily to provide Internet access to public buildings. Another 400 local governments provide some sort of broadband option to businesses or residents, and about 150 offer it citywide as an alternative to private cable providers, he said. None of those with citywide access are large cities, he noted.

Mitchell said he doesn’t expect San Franciscans to one day wake up to free, citywide Internet service — but he called the Dig Once policy a “no-brainer” and said it’s becoming increasingly popular in cities big and small.

“There was a time we thought everyone would have free electricity because of nuclear power,” he said. “I think everyone will be paying for high-quality Internet access for the foreseeable future.”

But, he said, the installation of city-owned fiber will allow San Francisco officials to make sure no one is left without high-speed access, if private companies only build out some areas of town, for example.

Freedom to be creative

“This small step will really enable San Francisco to have more freedom in the future to be creative,” Mitchell said. “It won’t be acceptable for some kids to have access to great Internet service and some not to, so this is important to have.”

Miguel Gamiño, acting chief information officer for the San Francisco Department of Technology, said the ultimate goal is to “have more capacity, better reliability and connectivity” — and redundancies, so critical public facilities are never at risk of losing access.

He said the agency has been hard at work unifying its existing public Wi-Fi under the name #SFWiFi, so it’s easier for the public to log in and for the city to figure out where connectivity lags.

“We want to unify the brand so we can advertise it, raise awareness and usability ... and identify areas where there isn’t good Wi-Fi access, then we can focus from a build-out standpoint on more or better service,” he said.

The Dig Once initiative could also prove to be a moneymaker for the Department of Technology, the way Hetch Hetchy hydro power is for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission: Currently, the technology agency brings in about $279,000 a year by leasing its unused fiber capacity to private businesses, and that amount could rise significantly as the city’s capacity increases, Chiu said.

©2014 the San Francisco Chronicle