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SF hopes to plug in to equal internet access after repeal of federal regulations

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Dev/Mission, headquartered in the Mission, operates on municipal fiber internet and works to expand youth access to technology. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

City and state leaders joined independent internet service providers in reaffirming their commitment to uphold open access standards after the Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to strike down net neutrality regulations.

Established in 2015, the regulations mandated that internet service providers treat all content equally, prohibiting them from slowing down or prioritizing traffic, blocking content or charging internet users for access to certain content.

But in a 3-2 vote in favor of free market forces, the regulatory oversight was overturned Thursday, requiring internet service providers to only disclose their online practices to the Federal Trade Commission, which in turn can police them for anti-competitive practices.

The decision immediately fueled local initiatives aimed at tackling The City’s digital divide and elicited calls for action to establish net neutrality at the state level.

With the support of the late Mayor Ed Lee, Supervisor Mark Farrell earlier this year took the lead on plans to expand a municipal fiber optic network that would bring “1 Gbps [gigabit per second] intranet access to every home and business,” according to a consultant report released in October, which was previously reported by the San Francisco Examiner.

Farrell said his office expects to issue a Request For Qualifications for the project in early January, and will have “a detailed timeline over the course of next year.

“By building our own infrastructure, our own internet utility, we will be able to control the consumer privacy [and] the net neutrality aspects, and not fall victims to the Republicans’ [policies] in D.C.,” he said.

The project would be operated as a private-public partnership and includes the selection of one entity to lay out the fiber optic cables and another to sell access to internet service providers.

When asked if The City’s fiber network would be net neutral, Farrell said, “When you control the infrastructure, you can control the terms that providers deliver their service and access to San Francisco residents.”

The net neutrality repeal inspired Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Francisco, to call on Congress to fight the repeal and House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi to urge Democrats to “turn to the courts,” but state Sen. Scott Wiener plans to counter the repeal with legislation.

Wiener told the San Francisco Examiner he’s been watching the “slow moving FCC trainwreck on net neutrality for a while now,” and hours after the decision, announced plans to establish net neutrality regulations in California with legislation he will bring forward in January.

“A free, urban and Democratic internet is so important in general and particularly now when we have a president who continuously attacks the media and exhibits authoritarian tendencies,” Wiener said. “We can’t have a situation where internet services providers have the ability to decide which websites we can access.”

California currently does not have its own regulations on net neutrality.

Wiener said the state has options to change that by regulating “business practices to require net neutrality, condition state contracts on adhering to net neutrality and require net neutrality as part of cable franchise agreements, as a condition to using the public right-of-way for internet infrastructure, and in broadband packages.”

Farrell said he would support state net neutrality regulations “1,000 percent.”

Calling the FCC’s decision “disappointing on so many levels,” Farrell said it proves “why we need to do this at the local level and take control of our own consumer privacy laws, our own net neutrality laws and make sure that we provide internet for everyone.”

Some local providers are already doing that. San Francisco-based internet service provider Monkeybrains has called on internet users to write to Congress to overturn the FCC vote.

“We are 100 percent net neutral,” said Monkeybrains director of technology, Anders Finn.

Finn said the repeal will likely drive internet users to seek out independent providers and move forward The City’s fiber optic initiative. “People come to us because Comcast and AT&T will not be [net neutral].”

Sonic Internet, a Santa Rosa-based independent provider, delivers gigabit fiber internet to “about half the homes in San Francisco” for $40 per month,  said Tara Sharp, Sonic’s head of marketing.

Still, accessibility remains an issue. Sonic must build out the infrastructure at each home it services — an expensive undertaking, Sharp said.

Because of limited access to independent ISPs, many San Franciscans already left behind by the digital divide could be dually impacted by the net neutrality repeal, said Leo Sosa, founder of dev/Mission, a nonprofit that works to connect underserved youth to technology education and careers.

“At the end of the day you’re looking at ISPs like Monkeybrains who are trying to make sure that communities [are connected], but not everybody will have access to a company like that,” he said.

“We have students who based on their terrority [will have to use] Comcast or AT&T. At some point, they will be charged for certain content which will create a big hurdle on their income.”

Dev/Mission operates out of Valencia Gardens, an affordable housing community in the Mission, and is plugged into municipal fiber internet.

“Young people come here on a daily basis to do homework [and] access the internet,” he said.

Sosa said he will work to create similar access points in other underserved communities.

In regard to The City’s push for fiber optic internet for all, Sosa said, “Whoever can step up to the plate, we will support.”

Tribune News Service contributed to this report.

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