Internet for all San Franciscans? Here’s how it could happen In a city where so much information is tweeted, emailed, Skyped or texted, thousands of people are getting left behind.
If Farrell pulls it off, San Francisco would become the largest city in the country to have such a system.
“The sad reality is that San Francisco is the innovation capital of
the world, and more than 100,000 San Francisco residents still do not
have Internet access at home,” Farrell said, citing statistics from a
budget and legislative analyst’s report he ordered last year.
An additional 50,000 residents have rickety dial-up connections, he said. “And that’s criminal, in my opinion.”
Confronting this disparity, the supervisor and his supporters have
started characterizing the Internet as a utility, just like water or
electricity service. They see publicly owned broadband as the next
battlefront for a city that recently took on Pacific Gas and Electric by
creating its own clean energy system.
The idea isn’t new. Chattanooga, Tenn., has a publicly owned fiber
network that’s run by the city’s electric utility. Officials in Kansas
City, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo., brokered an agreement with Google
Fiber to run a network through the cities in 2011. Stockholm began
laying cable in 1994 and now has a vast subterranean system that it
leases to service providers, the model San Francisco will most likely
City politicians have long talked about creating a universal Internet
system that would put San Francisco’s technical abilities in line with
its social credos, but past attempts have belly-flopped.
In 2003, then-Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Chris Daly got the city to
fund a $300,000 study on city-controlled Internet, arguing it would be
what Ammiano termed “a great (social) equalizer.” But they failed to
put together a concrete plan.
In the intervening years, San Francisco inched toward its
politicians’ goals of Internet equity. In 2010, Newsom began spreading
free Wi-Fi to all of the city’s public housing projects. Three years
later, Farrell staked his political future on municipal Internet when
he helped secure a $600,000 gift from Google that allowed the city to
buy and install Wi-Fi equipment in 32 parks. New statistics from the
Department of Technology show that more than half a million devices connect to the city’s wireless network each month.
Farrell began laying the foundation for a far more ambitious plan —
laying fiber throughout the city, including areas like Visitacion Valley
and the Bayview, where the cost of digging up the street far exceeds
the immediate profit for any carrier.
The supervisor built momentum for the idea by forming a coalition of
neighborhood groups and a panel of academics to publish reports on the
importance of a municipal fiber network. Farrell and Mayor Ed Lee also
secured $600,000 in city funding for a consultant, CTC Technology and
Energy, to calculate cost estimates.
Depending on what infrastructure model they settle on, they may have to pitch a bond measure to voters.
There could be risks — or alternatively, a big payoff — for Farrell, who is devoting his political capital to the project.
“The nice thing about Wi-Fi is that it costs less up front, and you
can install it before the next election,” said Christopher Mitchell, a
community broadband expert at the Institute for Local Self Reliance, an
advocacy group in Minneapolis.
But he noted that Farrell could face intense opposition from big
telecom companies like Comcast and AT&T, which provide most of the
Internet service and infrastructure in San Francisco.
“There will be a scare campaign involving print mailers, telephone
calls and radio messages, saying that community broadband will threaten
city finances,” Mitchell said.
Farrell is a political moderate with strong Silicon Valley ties —
before entering politics he worked as a lawyer for tech companies and as
an investment banker — but he has reached out to progressive former
Supervisor Eric Mar, who has helped lead the neighborhood coalition and
conduct surveys that illustrate how uneven the Internet service is in a
city known as a tech capital.
“I helped pull in a lot of seniors and nonprofits, and I helped
persuade them to be more trustful that a big-tent approach could
succeed, even though we weren’t successful a decade ago,” Mar said.
Over the past few months, Farrell has also backed legislation to nudge the city closer to a municipally controlled system.
In December, the Board of Supervisors passed his bill requiring
landlords to allow their tenants to use any state-licensed carrier. His
law mandating that all new developments include fiber conduits passed in
February. He is also pushing a bill that would allow Internet carriers
to install fiber-optic cables in sidewalks, a low-cost form of
infrastructure that would help small companies compete with AT&T and
In a recent interview, Farrell downplayed the rumors about a 2019 mayoral bid, saying he’ll decide “when the time is right.”
Whether he can turn citywide broadband into a viable campaign
platform is an open question. It’s a move that could position Farrell as
an effective challenger to Mark Leno, said Jason McDaniel, a professor
of political science at San Francisco State University.
“The idea of bridging a digital divide, of fixing race and class
inequality — that’s a message designed to be attractive to a more
progressive, left-leaning audience,” he said.
But some analysts view broadband as one of those important but boring
issues that doesn’t have the same urgency as homelessness or protecting
immigrants from deportation.
Broadband isn’t a topic of “overriding concern” in San Francisco,
said political strategist Maggie Muir. She said voters “face other more
compelling issues every day when they walk out the door.”
Rachel Swan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org