San Francisco seeks to speed up fiber Internet expansion

(Mike Koozmin/2013 S.F. Examiner)

Falling behind other cities in providing Internet service, San Francisco is taking steps to ensure fiber optic installations occur concurrently with other road work.

Under a dig-once proposal being voted on next week by the Board of Supervisors, the Department of Technology would be required in many cases to ensure conduits for a fiber network are installed simultaneously with road trenches dug for sewer or electrical work.

The requirement would ensure The City is able to expand its existing fiber network, which is the backbone of wireless networks, and at a lower cost, officials say. The fiber optic network, for example, is currently being used for the free public Wi-Fi along Market Street, in public buildings like City Hall and for the 32 public spaces where service was launched last week.

On Monday, the board's Land Use and Economic Development Committee approved the legislation protecting fiber optic installations introduced by board President David Chiu.

“When you look at the connectivity of this city and Internet speeds here compared to other places it's sort of embarrassing that we are San Francisco and we are the heart of so much technological innovation and yet our Internet infrastructure just doesn't compare well to a lot of other cities,” committee Chairman Scott Wiener said.

Wiener said he was frustrated that The City has failed to more aggressively install the fiber network given the “many miles and miles and miles of streets we have completely dug up and then re-covered” in recent years.

The City currently has 140 miles of fiber conduit, which connects police stations, office buildings and public safety radio sites, according to Brian Roberts, policy analyst with the Department of Technology. The department is currently working on connecting The City's health clinics and libraries.

The City is also leasing its fiber network to medical and educational institutions for about $200,000 a year. Chiu and Wiener believe the lease payments could be increased significantly by partnering with more businesses, providing a valuable revenue stream for investment in The City's fiber effort.

Eric Brooks was part of the Public Net Coalition that in the mid-2000s was critical of a Google-Earthlink proposed agreement that would have provided a free Wi-Fi service, but is supportive of current efforts to expand access.

“It is absolutely vital that we do this just like city streets,” Brooks said. “That the fiber that we build out, that the conduit that we build out is owned and controlled by the city of San Francisco and that we build out a fiber broadband network to the entire city as quickly as possible.”

He added that a fiber network is important to not only close the digital divide but to have a public service when the Federal Communications Commission “are right now moving to get control of the Internet.”

Chiu said that “dig once as a policy will help us improve connectivity in our city, to help us close our city's digital divide. Too many members of our low-income communities are not online.”

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