San Francisco is poised to become more Internet-connected at lower cost to its residents, and the Mission District is right in the middle of it.
Monkey Brains, a Mission-based service provider, is offering free Wi-Fi until the end of the year for those willing to pay the $250 setup fee, and a neighborhood nonprofit is using a federal stimulus grant to expand public computer centers. Most ambitious of all, the city wants to subsidize cheaper access to high-speed Internet citywide.
All of this activity could give low-income neighborhoods access to the Internet and possibly lower connection costs for all San Franciscans.
At present, dozens of small and large companies provide Internet service in San Francisco, using their own fiber networks.
Under the city’s plan, San Francisco would rent its 90-plus miles of fiber — the material used to transmit data over the Internet — to service providers at cost, said Barry Fraser, a department of technology telecommunications policy analyst. In return, the companies would expand their networks to connect more people and possibly bring down prices.
“If we can lower the infrastructure cost, we believe we can drive down the [service] cost,” Fraser said.
Over the years, the city has amassed a large fiber-optic network thanks to grants and development by Internet companies such as Comcast. Some of the fiber remains unused, and the city has a window of opportunity to use and expand this network through stimulus dollars, Fraser said.
The city has asked the federal government’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program for $14 million to expand its infrastructure network — $12 million for public computing and $8 million for broadband adoption.
The city will find out in September whether its application has been successful, and would have three years to complete the project.
Rudy Rucker, co-founder of the Mission-based Internet provider Monkey Brains, said leasing municipal fiber would help the company expand its growing network.
“It would be great. But we’re not waiting for them — we’re already
Monkey Brains, a two-person Internet service provider founded in 1998, began by hosting servers, then expanded its wireless network throughout the Mission. Why? Because they were bored, said Rucker.
“We’re not in it for the profit. Sometimes we just…want to challenge ourselves.”
Their pilot program in the Mission provides free wireless service to qualifying customers — those in range of their hardware — who pay the roughly $250 it costs to install a rooftop antenna.
So far 50 people, mostly those disgruntled with their current Internet service provider, have installed Monkey Brains antennas on their roofs. The company recently hired a part-time worker to help install antennas.
Rucker said their Internet service is as fast as 10 to 20 Mbps; in comparison, AT&T’s best DSL package is advertised as 6 Mbps.
“We want to create a black hole for large Internet service providers in the Mission,” Rucker said of the company’s plan to create the neighborhood’s largest network.
Monkey Brains recently installed equipment on 19th Street that provides free Wi-Fi to the southern half of Dolores Park.
Rucker said the company is making no profit from the program, and is offering free Wi-Fi so it can expand its network. Every antenna it installs transmits its signal farther.
Once the promotion is over, he added, the company will charge customers as little as possible in order to keep expanding the “black hole.”
Monkey Brains’ efforts could be further subsidized if it is able to lease municipal fiber: Rucker said the city has quoted him a price that’s one-sixth what private entities charge. Other providers would also be able to get in on the deal, but at least one big company doesn’t want to be part of it.
Andrew Johnson, a spokesperson for Comcast, said it has no intention of using city fiber because it has its own network.
But small, independent Internet service providers could use cheap city fiber to compete with the larger companies and bring prices down, Fraser said.
Rucker said Monkey Brains would consider extending free Wi-Fi service if it’s reasonably inexpensive to do — something municipal fiber might make possible.
If other companies do the same, it will be the third attempt to provide free citywide Wi-Fi in San Francisco.
The first, in 2007, failed because EarthLink, the company the city partnered with, dropped out. In 2008, the Meraki Group, headquartered in the Mission, tried to do the same but has since shifted its focus away from free Wi-Fi.
“We have decided to focus our marketing and messaging efforts on promoting our enterprise solutions, which were launched last year and are now a much larger part of our business,” said Marie Williams, Meraki’s marketing manager.
Free citywide Wi-Fi was the city’s low-cost solution to expand Internet access to low-income neighborhoods. The stimulus money the city is applying for has the same goal, but would achieve it through expanding infrastructure and boosting computer centers. (See sidebar)