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.