Broadband choice for the Bay Area

Engine made its home in the Bay Area for a number of reasons, the top being its proximity to some of the most creative and innovative companies in the United States. Home to tens of thousands of startups, it’s a tech haven with a rich talent pool, access to capital and seemingly endless disruptive ideas.

The Bay Area is also home to a relatively high number of competitive internet service providers (ISPs), such as Sonic, Fastmetrics, EthericNetworks and others. Webpass built a point-to-point wireless infrastructure that provides ultra-fast internet in The City. Another area provider, Monkeybrains, was able to successfully crowdfund the deployment of its own gigabit wireless service in San Francisco. However, even with this proliferation of providers, not everyone in the Bay Area has access to a range of ISP choices.

If you live in an apartment or in a condo, like 40 percent of San Franciscans do, you might not be able to choose your broadband provider. According to Broadband Now, out of those 40 percent of San Franciscan apartment and condo-dwellers, only 3 percent have access to the fastest available broadband technology. Even though there are more than 196 broadband providers in California, most residents only have access to one or two choices.

“The reality in San Francisco is that tens of thousands of residents have been denied access to different internet service providers,” said Mark Farrell of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. “I fundamentally believe competition is a good thing that will ultimately drive prices down and improve internet access across all of San Francisco.”

For those living in apartments and condos, that lack of competition is often because their landlords or property owners profit off of revenue-sharing agreements with companies that provide television, internet and phone services. When a resident signs up with those companies, the landlord or property owner makes money.

That’s a powerful incentive for landlords and property owners to limit broadband choices. Federal law says that they can’t prohibit their tenants from signing up with a preferred service provider, but landlords and property owners can effectively do so anyway by refusing to allow competing service providers to install fiber, wiring or antennas in the building.

The status quo allows landlords and property owners to cash in on unnecessarily limited broadband options, through the revenue-sharing kickbacks. Frustrated tenants are forced to accept the limited choice or attempt to find housing somewhere else, an expensive and time-consuming process that isn’t always an option for many families.

If that sounds wrong, it’s because it is. Luckily, there is a real opportunity to change this. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is currently considering a proposal that would give San Franciscans back their freedom to choose their broadband provider and restore competition to the market, lowering prices and providing more options for residents.

The “Choice of Communications Services Providers in Multiple Occupancy Buildings” ordinance would ban those kickbacks for landlords and property owners, and would compel providers to actually compete for their customers’ business. The ordinance would be great for residents and for business — leveling the playing field for small and new broadband providers to have a fighting chance in the market and creating the incentive for all providers to offer lower-priced and faster internet.

Here at Engine, we believe that everyone in the Bay Area deserves access to more affordable, better and faster broadband options. You can help make sure that this ordinance passes by telling your supervisor that they should vote for internet choice. Learn more and sign the petition online at votervoice.net/Engine/campaigns/48219/respond!

Emma Peck is a Policy Analyst at Engine, a nonprofit that supports the growth of technology entrepreneurship through economic research, policy analysis, and advocacy on local and national issues. Reach her @emmaspeck or @engineorg.

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