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Farrell’s citywide internet plan could benefit transit, public health agencies

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A new report on Mayor Mark Farrell’s proposed citywide internet plan could help connect all traffic signals to a fiber-optic network. (Courtesy photo)

Residents aren’t the only ones who stand to gain from San Francisco’s proposed citywide fiber-optic network in partnership with private companies.

A new city budget analyst report shows how city departments would benefit and illustrates the “smart city” potential for San Francisco, a term used to describe a ubiquitous internet connection and sensors providing real-time data collection to improve services.

The report identified $153.5 million “in planned or aspirational [department] projects through FY 2021-22, some of which could be offset if the City deployed the proposed network.” With the network in place, The City would no longer need to pay private internet companies for services, an estimated savings of $450,000 in the current fiscal year and a projection of $1.2 million in three years.

The costs identified in the report also include planned spending by city departments to expand the existing city-owned, limited fiber infrastructure overseen by the Department of Technology, which could instead be folded into the larger citywide network.

The report is the latest in a series issued by The City in recent years around the fiber project that Mayor Mark Farrell has spearheaded since he was a member of the Board of Supervisors. Farrell said the report shows the project would generate city revenues, such as through property value increases if homes have access to fiber, and would help city government operate “more effective and efficient.”

“This report begins to quantify everything we already knew about this project,” he said. “Once built, it will save The City tens of millions of dollars.”

One of the biggest costs identified in the report is connecting all traffic signals to a fiber-optic network. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has already connected 285 of the 1,300 total traffic lights, allowing the agency to prioritize traffic signals for emergency vehicles, install cameras, operate variable message signs and provide real-time information about street conditions and parking information. The agency plans to hook 75 more up to a fiber connection; the remaining work would cost an estimated $141 million.

Other city department costs identified in the report include the ongoing plan to connect public facilities by expanding The City’s existing fiber-optic network. San Francisco has connected 387 public facilities, but the cost to connect the remaining 120 facilities is approximately $7.3 million.

“Expansion of City Fiber has historically been underfunded and behind schedule,” the report said. “Once the City commits to the development of the proposed ubiquitous gigabit speed network, the cost of connecting the remaining City facilities could be avoided.”

The proposed citywide fiber network would also allow the Department of Public Health to develop a “telehealth” program to monitor and treat patients remotely, which could “decrease the rate of initial admission and re-admissions, especially for conditions for which DPH can intervene remotely by looking at a patient via video, and listening to their lungs and heart via remote audio technology to prevent an initial or repeat hospitalization,” according to the report.

The department also plans to spend $1.2 million in fiber instratructure, in the coming years, including to connect clinics and supportive housing. “If the proposed network were deployed, DPH could avoid some or all of these infrastructure costs,” the report said.

The report pointed to crime-fighting benefits. “Although not under consideration by the Police, the Department could benefit from additional smart cameras and lights, linked by a Citywide fiber-optic network, that could be activated by police officers on their way to a crime scene,” the report said.

The report highlights one project occuring in partnership between Sidewalk Labs and Toronto, Canada, to develop a waterfront neighborhood “filled with robots, sensors, and other digital infrastructure to gather data about neighborhood activities, such as movements of people, pollution, trash, and noise” and to use it to improve government services. Sidewalk Labs is a subsidiary of Alphabet, Inc. in Mountain View.

“We have to embrace the future,” Farrell said. “I believe we should embrace the changes that are coming and take a leadership role.”

Farrell may introduce a measure for the November ballot to help fund the project before he leaves office, but wouldn’t confirm any plans on Tuesday. Estimates for building the network range from $1.2 billion to $1.8 billion and to operate between $69 million and $121 million annually.

“We are in the middle of final costing analysis and funding plans for the project,” he said.

The City selected three teams of companies last month — Bay City Broadband Partners, FiberGateway, and Sonic Plenary SF Fiber — to bid on a yet-to-be posted request for proposals to build the network, which is estimated to take three years.

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