Google announced plans last week to bring high-speed broadband internet to San Francisco to serve disconnected communities throughout the city by plugging in public and low-income properties at no cost to residents. The company will use existing fiber optic cables that are largely owned by third-party companies. It is also talking to the city about leasing access to some of the city’s high-speed cables.
“We’re just starting to reach out to property owners and managers today, so we don’t have specifics to share just yet about where we’ll be able to offer service,” said Google spokesperson Lauren Barriere.
For years, different companies have talked about offering free Wi-Fi in San Francisco, but none of the plans have managed to succeed. The Mission-based internet service provider Monkeybrains, for example, has long tried to tap into the city’s unused fiber network to make high speed internet accessible to all, but without success.
Owner Rudy Rucker said he has reached out to the city “multiple times over the past four years,” but “we have had no traction.”
The Department of Technology told him that fiber for non-government projects is not a priority.
“They could extend that fiber and allow us access to it, to allow higher speeds to those residents,” added Rucker. “Historically, the city has been reluctant to work with us, but they will work with Google. It’s a political issue, not a technology issue.”
Department of Technology spokesperson Kathleen Clark confirmed that the city is not currently leasing to any local providers, but said the department is “exploring what that could look like.”
Last December, the city made some strides in preparing for expanding its fiber assets, when District 2 Supervisor Mark Farrell introduced legislation directing various city agencies to map their fiber optic wires. These assets are largely built and owned by the Department of Technology but also belong to other city agencies, such as the Public Utilities Commission and the transit agency. Some “dark fiber,” or unused cable, belongs to private companies, such as PG&E, according to Miguel Gamiño, the Department of Technology’s executive director.
Some 260 miles of fiber wires currently run through various areas of the city, including parts of District 9, where cables run along Valencia, Folsom, 16th and 26th streets, according to Clark.
Farrell’s legislation passed at the Board of Supervisors earlier this year, and soon the city will have, “a better idea of where all fiber assets are,” said Jesse Montejano, Farrell’s legislative aide. This mapping, he said, is a crucial step in engaging in any future discussions about broadband expansion and in bridging the digital divide.
A 2013 survey by the City Controller’s Office found the digital divide most affects people of color, low-income, uneducated, and elderly populations, but ranked the Mission as fairly well connected compared to other neighborhoods, with 87 percent of its population having access to the internet at home.
Data collected by Mission Promise Neighborhood found that 46 percent of households in the Mission did not have a home computer with internet access in 2014. As for the Google program, the neighborhood could be included in the coverage area, said Gamiño.
At 1,000 megabits per second, fiber optic cables provide the fastest internet in the country. For technology advocates working to bridge the digital divide in low-income communities, the question of digital equity is at the forefront with the prospect of fiber service.
“The speed is higher, the bandwidth is humongous, and you have the ability to connect more families to that type of bandwidth,” said Leo Sosa, technology training coordinator at the Mission Economic Development Agency. “There still are a lot of families that live in the dark.” Sosa has been involved in helping some 1,000 low-income homes get connected through Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, a $10-a-month plan at 10 megabits per second for eligible families. That is decidedly lower than the 1,000 megabits per second that Google is promising.
Excited about Google’s announcement, Sosa called the expansion of fiber in the city a “next-level opportunity” for disadvantaged residents, including the Mission’s low-income families and seniors, to improve their lives.
Local nonprofits and digital equity advocates say they are ready to jump on board to help underserved communities connect at high speeds, when the time comes.
“[Fiber] needs to be rolled out in partnership with trusted community partners…to ensure the resource gets into the hands of the people,” said Stevon Cook, CEO of Mission Bit, a nonprofit that aims to eliminate the digital divide in low-income communities through coding courses.
“This is not an ‘if you build it they will come’ type of environment,” added Cook. “Access to the internet is an economic justice issue. With Google Fiber, we have an opportunity to fully integrate low-income communities in San Francisco to all the resources the internet has to offer.”
In a blog post, Google said that it will tap into San Francisco’s existing infrastructure when it comes to selecting the properties that will be connected to fiber, following a similar model used in Huntsville, Alabama. Rather than building “organic” fiber infrastructure from the ground up, as Google has done in other cities, using San Francisco’s existing networks will speed up Google Fiber’s availability.
“A city like San Francisco, where the infrastructure is really challenging and difficult, the opportunity to leverage existing fiber assets is the component that makes this deal possible,” said Gamiño.
If this happens, Gamiño said, the city could have a more active role in which locations and properties will have access to fiber. “If Google strikes a deal with a private entity, we may not be in that conversation in a formal way. But if they ever do come to us and want city fiber, we can certainly be the stewards of that equity component.”