Is fiber infrastructure the 21st century version of filling potholes? Today, a shaky internet connection at home is as frustrating and expletive-laden as driving down a bumpy road.
While we expect street repair to be a basic function of city government, what about the installation and maintenance of internet connectivity for all residents? A smooth car ride is nice. But a reliable online experience is a necessity for everyone who must work or attend school from the kitchen table.
Even after coronavirus, more San Franciscans will work from home permanently. The pandemic has forever changed how we work. Consider the tech companies that have already told employees they won’t return to a physical office.
Yet home access to fiber connectivity in San Francisco is as patchy as our weather microclimates. Some neighborhoods are luckier than others. Most of the city has no fiber option at all. The two internet providers that offer fiber — AT&T and Sonic — only cover between a quarter and a third of households.
“There is no excuse why the technology capital of the world should have such limited and outdated access to the internet for its citizens,” said westside resident Edgar Degiovanni, who grew up in Forest Knolls and now lives in Golden Gate Heights. “In 2020 there should be fiber access to all homes in the city.”
One in eight San Francisco residents still don’t have an internet connection at home, according to a report by SF Weekly. That’s why Mark Farrell pushed for a citywide fiber network when he was a supervisor in the 2010s and interim mayor in 2018.
Farrell told Government Technology magazine that he wanted to create a public-private version in which City Hall constructs and owns network infrastructure that is leased by private operators for retail sale.
Farrell said an entirely public fiber network would be too expensive and a private network has “absolutely no incentive for these companies to cure our digital divide in San Francisco.”
While the estimated cost of building a citywide fiber network was $1.7 billion, Farrell released a report that showed how citywide fiber would save tax dollars in the long run through increased efficiencies and generate new revenue by stimulating the economy.
Farrell’s six-month stint as interim mayor was not long enough to rally the city around his vision. In his last weeks in office, Farrell pulled a tax measure from the ballot that was designed to fund the project. It was polling just under the two-thirds majority needed to pass.
City Hall hasn’t spoken of fiber since.
Benefits of fiber
How often have you experienced a frozen face on a Zoom screen? What about loading videos or sharing large files? The process can be painfully slow and unstable.
Fiber solves that problem by being scalable, fast and secure, according to a Fortune report. Its higher bandwidth availability does not decrease as you host web conferences or stream video.
When working from home requires security, fiber offers peace of mind because its signal can’t be intercepted unless a physical device is installed to tap into the cable.
Reliability is another practical benefit of fiber-optic Internet because it is not threatened by bad weather, according to a report by Atlantech Online. This means that costs for labor and materials for repairs are much lower than a network that uses standard copper cabling.
Fiber also benefits our local economy. The ability for any software engineer to work from home gives San Francisco a competitive edge as tech companies seek to expand in markets like Denver, Austin and Chicago.
Critics say installing fiber is too time-consuming, expensive and disruptive. Digging up streets certainly upsets traffic and residents.
That’s why Mark Farrell introduced legislation as a supervisor in 2017 to allow for microtrenching in San Francisco. A microtrench is a cut into the street that is only two inches wide and up to two feet deep. Once the fiber has been installed at the bottom of the microtrench, it can be filled and sealed in minutes. The entire process can allow streets to reopen the same day.
While Farrell’s microtrenching legislation didn’t pass, it should be reconsidered now. Especially since the California state senate is considering legislation to create a microtrenching standard for accelerating broadband fiber installation.
Focus on the necessary
In a city that’s only 49 square miles, there shouldn’t be such disparate internet speeds based on geography. The result is many residents are unable to access the internet service they need.
“It is crazy that my neighborhood in the tech capital of San Francisco only has two outdated choices for high speed data — cable or DSL — when it should be fiber,” said westside resident Edgar Degiovanni. “This is not a technical challenge but for some reason it’s a political challenge.”
City Hall should prioritize connectivity to support a local economy that is rapidly changing and ensure no one is left behind. Bringing high-speed internet access to every household will ensure that all residents have the tools to participate in a post-pandemic world.
San Francisco’s budget has been out of control for years. Now is the time to streamline the budget to focus on the services that really matter and every resident depends on.
City Hall has long ignored the municipal essentials like clean and safe streets. Fiber infrastructure deserves to be on the list. Now is the time for City Hall to finally get the basics right. In 2020, that means both filling potholes and installing fiber.
Joel Engardio is a candidate for supervisor on San Francisco’s westside in District 7. Learn more about his views on local issues at engardio.com/issues