The benefits of fiber

Pub date February 6, 2007
WriterSarah Phelan


Amsterdam is building a citywide fiber-to-the-premises system. So are Hong Kong, Milan, and Zurich. If San Francisco follows suit, it would be making a far-sighted, multifaceted investment: FTTP would boost our economy, attracting software companies, video production houses, and digital media shops. It would enhance public health, allowing surgeons to review the same materials from different locations. Municipal fiber would improve public safety, facilitating the mirroring and backup of vital data at remote, earthquake-safe locations. It would enable unlimited and open communications — breaking ongoing communication monopolies — and save buckets of cash within a couple of decades.

These futuristic findings are laid out in the fiber feasibility report Sup. Tom Ammiano commissioned two years ago, but the Department of Telecommunications and Information Services didn’t green-light it until last fall. As a result of this delay, the city’s Maryland-based consultant, Columbia Telecommunications Corp. (CTC), couldn’t complete its fiber study until after Mayor Gavin Newsom said he’d struck a wi-fi deal with the Google-EarthLink partnership that still requires the Board of Supervisors’ approval.

Newsom’s plan was threatened even before his recent scandals. City budget analyst Harvey Rose’s report on municipal wi-fi offered a scathing assessment of the Google-EarthLink deal. Board members will now weigh the two new reports — and the opinions of a growing number of critics of the deal — before deciding on the mayor’s wi-fi proposal.

"So far I have more questions than answers," Sup. Aaron Peskin said of trying to digest the budget analyst’s report. "Questions about free service and quality of service. Questions about the environmental and aesthetic impacts of installing antennas citywide. I’ve got questions about Google’s cooperation with a totalitarian government overseas. I’ve got questions reutf8g to the shitty service I’ve personally gotten from EarthLink. Questions about the municipalization of services and questions about other technologies, including fiber."

Peskin admitted he’s yet to read the fiber report, which lauds FTTP as "the holy grail of broadband" while explaining that wi-fi isn’t a competitor but a complement to fiber, since wi-fi’s key advantage is its "mobility and connectivity during movement."

That said, the report recommends building citywide fiber, which it describes as a "fat pipe all the way into the home or business." In the face of the public sector’s lack of interest in building fiber networks that would meet growing demands for bandwidth and speed in an equitable and affordable manner, the CTC report concludes that municipal fiber would rank San Francisco among the world’s most far-sighted cities "by creating an infrastructure asset with a lifetime of decades that is almost endlessly upgradeable and capable of supporting any number of public or private sector communications initiatives."

With fiber allowing numerous competitors to quickly and inexpensively enter the market and offer competing, differentiated broadband services and access, the report recommends a wholesale open-access model to facilitate "democratic and free market values" and enhance the city’s reputation "for visionary and pioneering projects."

The report estimates a citywide open-access wholesale model will cost $563 million but predicts it will spark economic investment and jobs. It recommends building a pilot network in a 12-square-mile economic development area that includes Bayview, Hunters Point, South Bayshore, Chinatown, the Mission District, Mission Bay, Potrero Hill, SoMa, the Tenderloin, and the Western Addition.

The study also observes that aside from supporting safety and communications systems (thereby saving the city huge and unending costs of leasing circuits from telephone companies) and providing higher quality, higher capacity, more reliable, securer service, fiber is the best backbone for wi-fi systems.

Or as communications activist Bruce Wolfe recently told the Guardian, "Wi-fi is a parasite looking for a wire."

Speaking to us, along with United Layer’s Tim Pozar, SFLan’s Ralf Muehlen, and Our City’s Eric Brooks, Wolfe stated that far from being "the naysayers, as we were accused after critiquing the Google-EarthLink deal, we’re actually the truthsayers."

The foursome, who are supporters and providers of current wi-fi services in San Francisco, said although wi-fi rocks when you’re at an outdoor café or checking bus schedules with a cell phone, fiber rules when you’re in a basement, on a fourth floor, or in need of reliable and efficient service or massive capacity.

"That’s why it makes more sense to roll out a joint fiber-cable-wi-fi system, because all the interference and bog downs would be solved by hooking antennas into fiber," Pozar says. "Putting a bunch of antennas up as a cloud over the city supposedly gives free users speeds of 300 kbps, but anyone making a phone call or downloading a video will drain everyone else’s speeds, and blanketing the city with transmitters will make the spectrum unusable by others."

Muehlen expects the wi-fi service his business provides to get "blown out of the ether, technically, or be severely compromised," by the proposed Google-EarthLink deal. "But I wouldn’t mind if I got a network that didn’t suck," he says. "I just want something that works."

Brooks said many people who can’t afford the Internet are "compartmentalized in lower-income areas. Why not begin by addressing those areas instead of giving away the whole 49 square miles to Google-EarthLink?"

He noted that it will cost Google-EarthLink an estimated $300,000 to pay into the city-run Digital Inclusionary Fund. "That’s a drop in the bucket in terms of providing residents with gear, training, and support that truly bridge the digital divide." *