Digital debate: SF supervisors mull connecting the masses with citywide broadband network

After a new report showed more than 100,000 households lack Internet access, San Francisco is reviving the effort to create a public municipal broadband network to close the digital divide by connecting everyone in The City, while also examining other models.

In a glaring omission, The City’s new five-year technology plan, which is part of Mayor Ed Lee’s budget submission, doesn’t address how to close the digital divide — a term to refer to the segment of the population without high-speed Internet connection in their homes.

The lack of an ambitious plan to close the digital divide, which other smaller cities like Chattanooga, Tenn., and Stockholm have achieved through municipal broadband, is more politically sensitive than ever, given San Francisco’s promotion of itself as a hub for technology innovation.

“This digital divide is huge and gaping in San Francisco,” Supervisor Eric Mar said Tuesday when announcing he would assemble a digital inclusion task force to address the challenge.

Mar wasn’t alone in addressing the tech issue Tuesday after last week’s digital divide report, which he requested from Budget Analyst Harvey Rose, said more than 100,000 San Franciscans lack Internet access at their homes and some 50,000 are using sluggish dial-up connections. Those without access are lower income, typically older, less educated and people of color, the report said.

Supervisor Mark Farrell directed Rose to further study the issue by examining three models to deliver gigabit Internet speeds to residents and businesses citywide. The report will examine the financial needs and logistics of creating a public municipal network, a private network or a private-public network.

“Access to the Internet is no longer a nice-to-have service,” Farrell said. “It should be viewed as an economic right.”

The analysis will build on a 2007 study requested by then-Supervisor Tom Ammiano that showed The City could connect every home and business to a fiber network for $560 million in 15 years. Mar cited Monday’s New York Times editorial praising a growing number of local governments for doing more to close the digital divide: “For most Americans, broadband is quickly becoming a must-have utility like water and electricity. That’s why it makes sense for cities and states to get involved,” the editorial said.

Supervisor Scott Wiener lambasted city government for failing to build out the existing municipal fiber optic network by not installing fiber conduits every time the roadway is dug up for sewer or electrical work. “The City has fallen behind. I don’t think our city government has done what it needs to do,” Wiener said.

Even though a law went into effect six months ago about installing conduits, none have been put into place. The reason, Wiener said, was that The City is waiting for protocols to be developed by the Department of Technology, which then need to be reviewed by various city departments. Expressing frustration, Wiener announced he was drafting legislation that would mandate city departments install conduits every time there is roadwork.

Supervisor David Campos said he was struck by “the timidity with which The City is addressing” the digital divide. “We tout ourselves of being a city that is technology driven but when it comes to the digital divide we are lagging behind many cities,” Campos said. “San Francisco over the last few years has rolled out the red carpet for these tech corporate giants and I wonder where are they in this picture?”

Eric Brooks, a member of the Public Net Coalition, which advocates for a public fiber broadband network, was critical of Farrell’s proposal for even entertaining the possibility of private-sector involvement.

“Fiber broadband lines are exactly the same as highway and roads,” Brooks said. “It’s a thing all governments need to put in as a government service so that all people and all businesses can go nuts on that system, enjoy the system and make loads of money.”

Brooks said The City would ultimately recoup the costs with businesses “chomping at the bit” to use a fast city-owned broadband service, which would charge them less than other private services like Comcast.

“We are way behind the curve and the way to get ahead of the curve is to just build out a public system,” he said.

Discussions on how to close the digital divide are expected to continue with Farrell’s requested report due out this summer. Backers of municipal broadband want to see a finalized plan next year.

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