San Francisco building own Open Access Fibre network for $1.9bn

A report has emerged from City Hall in San Francisco which assesses the final details for the city to build its own fibre network, passing 100% of homes and businesses, for $1.9 billion.

While there will be likely be hundreds of conversations around the US on how fibre can be delivered to the home, most of which will be nothing more than blue-sky thinking, this is one we like. The city already has the appetite for fibre after false-promises from Google Fiber last year, and the attitude of the ISPs when it comes to net neutrality might force the hand of the city. $1.9 billion is also not a huge amount when you actually think about it.

This would certainly be an approach to connectivity which would raise some eye brows, and one which could start a trend across the states. This would be a network which is designed and managed on principles which are governed by the opinions of the local population not federal regulation. The city has promised it will close the digital divide, ensure net neutrality principles are maintained and privacy concerns are addressed.

Even the emergence of such a scheme perhaps demonstrates how bored the US people are of the current telco industry. Service is highly prioritised in the urban or affluent areas, it is expensive, customer support is usually poor and fibre rollout plans are staggering. To ensure fairness throughout the city, a free Wifi service would be offered in public areas, while low-income residents would qualify for subsidies to make connectivity more affordable

Add into the mix that the people of California are not happy with the way net neutrality rules are being relegated to the footnotes, and the idea of a publicly funded and owned network becomes more attractive. State Senator Scott Weiner has already introduced Senate Bill 822, which aims to re-establish net neutrality rules across the state, though by owning its own network San Francisco would be able to enforce its own governance policies on ISPs.

The network would essentially function in similar manner to Openreach in the UK. The infrastructure would be owned and managed by the city, who would provide an ‘OTT’ service to the ISPs over the same lines. A two-tier data highway would not be allowed, and ISPs would also be forced to request ‘opt-ins’ from customers for any data collection or dissemination. It sounds like a great idea for those who oppose the current path of the FCC.

The only concern here would be the price. In the telco world, $1.9 billion is not a huge amount any more, but when it is public funds it is a monstrous amount of cash. However, the report notes that the benefits of a full fibre network should outweigh the investment. The digital economy is booming in California already and a full-fibre network would only accelerate this momentum in San Francisco. Add in the idea that 12% of the city lack internet access at home, a number which raises to 15% when you measure public school students alone, and the merit of the scheme becomes more promising. There are still a huge number of questions to be answered, for example whether it would be a lit or dark fibre network or the nitty gritty details of funding, but progress is being made.

The ISPs will of course not like this idea, as it creates a level playing field (everyone will use the same infrastructure) which encourages a pricing race to the bottom and forces the development of a customer service environment which actually cares about the customer. Genuine value adds will also have to be considered as holding customers to ransom as the only provider in an area will not exist anymore. You should expect some sort of lobbying or legal action to disrupt development.

That said, looks like the balance of power will be rightly back in the hands of the purchaser. You can read the full report here.