Proposed network would be fast, open, and provide explicit protections for user privacy and net neutrality.
This week, the San Francisco Municipal Fiber Blue Ribbon Board released a report recommending a set of provisions that ISPs using the city’s infrastructure will have to follow, the latest in a set of recent moves towards to the rollout of municipal fiber in San Francisco. Since taking office last month, Mayor Mark Farrell has overseen significant commitments toward the rollout of the proposed fiber optic network.
The result of planning between late Mayor Ed Lee and then-Supervisor Farrell, the city’s future citywide network will work on an open access model, providing internet service providers the ability to operate retail network service using city-owned infrastructure. Proponents of this model say that this provides cities the opportunity to build greater network access, spur economic growth, and mandate network neutrality while still encouraging competition. The city’s next step is to ensure that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) “mirror San Francisco values,” says Mayor Farrell.
In January, the city’s Department of Technology announced a Request for Qualifications, a process that will narrow down potential partners for rolling out and operating the fiber network. While that process continues through April, the report released Thursday recommends provisions which would mandate partner adherence to net neutrality standards. The panel is chaired by Mayor Farrell and includes members such as the University of San Francisco’s Professor Susan Freiwald, the Open Tech Institute’s Kevin Bankston, and Catherine Sandoval of the California Public Utilities Commission.
The panel’s recommendations focus on access and privacy. Modeled after the Title II regulations that the FCC applied to the internet in 2015 before repeal, the proposed policies bar ISPs from blocking particular sites, slowing down access to content, and prioritizing content through paid “fast lanes” or commercial partnerships. Current providers in San Francisco have already subverted these regulations: the panel cites AT&T’s previous blocking of Apple’s FaceTime and Comcast’s throttling of Netflix as examples.
The panel also recommends a series of rules meant to protect user privacy, leaning on an “open access” model that would prevent ISPs from seeing, modifying, and blocking content delivered to users. In addition, panel member and Electronic Frontier Foundation staff attorney Kit Walsh said in an interview that in the open access model, “you get the benefits of competition while disincentivizing sneaky behavior.”
Under that model, the city constructs and owns network infrastructure that is then leased by private operators for retail sale. This infrastructure, employed notably by Santa Monica’s City Net and Stockholm’s Stokab, reduces investment for new entrants to the market, lowers the cost of switching for business and consumers, and allows cities to create a set of mandates for retail providers using the network. An alternative model where cities roll out networking and become the internet service provider is criticized by some for its privacy implications, including the EFF.
Some worry that these protections could be vulnerable to legal challenge under the interstate commerce clause. “The FCC has tried to prevent local governments from protecting net neutrality,” said Kit Walsh, “but it doesn’t have a lot of authority to do that.” Walsh explained that the Blue Ribbon Panel’s recommended policies would only apply to providers using the infrastructure owned by the city, thus skirting potential federal intervention.
Meanwhile in Sacramento, State Senator Scott Weiner has promised to provide a statewide solution to protect network neutrality, and 14 states thus far have proposed similar regulation. It is as yet unclear whether or not the FCC will take legal action.
Mayor Farrell says that the policies recommended by the Blue Ribbon Panel will allow San Francisco to “provide a digital sanctuary city.” Moving forward, the city will continue to work with San Franciscans for Municipal Fiber, a panel of civic organizations including Code for America and Zero Divide, to hone these policies as the network rolls out.
The city’s Request for Qualifications will close in April, at which time the Department of Technology and the City Administrator’s Office will narrow down 3-5 potential contractors and commence a Request for Proposals and award a contract to build, operate, and manage the open access fiber optic network for 15 years.
If rolled out properly, municipal fiber could provide San Francisco with fast and affordable internet while protecting network neutrality and user privacy. “While the federal government continues to deliver devastating decisions regarding the internet,” said Mayor Farrell, “I believe it is up to local communities to fight back – it’s the only way.”