Telephone poles and power lines over a San Francisco street. (Courtesy image)

Buying PG&E’s distribution network could also make municipal broadband possible

By Preston Rhea

The City of San Francisco is doubly harmed by its relationship with PG&E.

The for-profit utility neglected to invest in safety upgrades to its transmission lines, resulting in a series of deadly fires that killed dozens of people last year and choked Northern California with poisonous smoke. PG&E is using its bankruptcy to avoid liability for the disasters it caused.

Meanwhile, ratepayers in San Francisco feed PG&E’s shareholder profits and our municipal government pays it tens of millions of dollars a year.

Now that situation may change. The news that Mayor London Breed made a $2.5 billion offer to acquire all of PG&E’s power distribution assets that serve San Francisco is a great idea, and it opens the door to a revolution in city services that could go beyond electricity. It could mean gigabit broadband for all.

How does acquiring a power utility lead to municipal internet? This is a well-trodden path all over the US — most famously in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the cooperatively-run Electrical Power Board (EPB) began offering telecom service over a decade ago. Today EPB serves over 60 percent of their power customers with symmetrical internet connections over optical fiber, many years ahead of schedule.

Fiber is used to monitor power distribution and outages, and is necessary for applications like interconnected smart grids that deliver electricity generated from renewables. Pulling fiber all over the power grid is economically sound, and it is feasible to run telecom services over that same fiber.

If the City buys PG&E distribution infrastructure, then — like Chattanooga’s EPB — it can pull fiber at will. Owning the power utility means full access to all parts of the power poles with no expensive make-ready work. With PG&E’s underground conduit in hand as well, the municipal utility could lay fiber to buildings without digging up the sidewalk — something every San Franciscan would love. Building this network as an energy utility would reduce costs by as much as a third compared to negotiating with PG&E as a third party.

What’s more, next-generation “5G” wireless networks are infeasible without lots of fiber everywhere. Coverage as promised by industry boosters would require several fiber drops per SF city block. Large telecom companies are squeezing the public by pushing exclusive arrangements that leave cities paying tribute to profitable corporations.

A municipal fiber network over a city-owned power grid would put the path to 5G in our hands, on our terms—not Verizon’s or AT&T’s. It would be the backbone of a public network that guarantees internet access as a human right, and will close San Francisco’s stubborn digital divide that sits on top of the growing economic divide. San Francisco should use these new public tools to attack the underlying inequality in our city.

San Francisco can’t plan for the future with confidence by relying on private providers to solve these problems. As the SF Public Utility Commission’s May report on municipalization shows, PG&E tightly holds the parts of the system that are most “valuable” to extract the most profits in the form of rents or service fees. Municipalization will weaken the private power PG&E wields, opening the way to a cooperatively-controlled future for our energy and telecom infrastructure.

The City has ambitious goals to de-carbonize its power infrastructure, halt the exodus of the working class, combat homeless, and reduce car mileage with Vision Zero – all hindered by the costly yoke of PG&E. Even the State of California’s “net neutrality” law can only go so far over private infrastructure. With universal public internet over fiber, the City can make policies that promote telecommuting, remote medical services, lifelong learning, and the construction of locally-controlled applications apart from the platform monopolies.

At present, San Francisco can only beg and “incentivize” hegemonic private companies to reach these goals. The City should bring 100 percent of its power generation and distribution under democratic control. We can then do the same for internet access at a modest cost.

Preston Rhea is a San Francisco resident and director of engineering, policy program at a local ISP.

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

Police release an image a cracked windshield on a Prius that Cesar Vargas allegedly tried to carjack. Vargas, who was shot by police a short time later, can be seen in videos jumping on the windshield and pushing a Muni passenger who disembarked from a bus. (Courtesy SFPD
SFPD releases videos of deadly police shooting

Cesar Vargas killed after reports of carjacking with knife

New legislation would make sure supportive housing tenants don’t pay more than 30 percent of their income for rent.. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner))
Supportive housing tenants could get more help paying the rent

Supportive housing tenants struggling to pay rent could soon see their payments… Continue reading

Organizers of the San Francisco International Arts Festival had planned to use parts of Fort Mason including the Parade Ground, Eucalyptus Grove and Black Point Battery to host performances by about a dozen Bay Area arts groups. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Arts festival sues city over permit denial

Organizer says outdoor performances should be treated like demonstrations, religious gatherings

An oversight body for San Francisco’s mental health programs may be restructured after questions were raised about its management and lack of effectiveness. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Behavioral health oversight body looks for new start — and staff — after mismanagement

Members of an oversight body for San Francisco’s behavioral health programs said… Continue reading

The City requires the recycling or reuse of debris material removed from a construction project site. <ins>(Emma Chiang/Special to S.F. Examiner)</ins>
<ins></ins>
Permits proposed for haulers of construction debris to achieve zero-waste

San Francisco plans to tighten regulations on the disposal of construction and… Continue reading

Most Read