It is not your imagination that internet service sucks in San Francisco. Our coverage has improved somewhat since an embarrassing 2014 report from the Open Technology Institute that showed tech-centric San Francisco had the slowest download speeds of any major U.S. city. But newer analyses still show San Francisco internet providers deliver much slower average speeds than Seattle, Austin, Phoenix, and other cities that are not particularly known as tech hubs.
But the problems with your internet service are First World problems — that is, if you even have internet service. A full 12 percent of San Franciscans — or 100,000 residents — do not have any home internet connection, according to a report from the city Budget and Legislative Analyst. Additionally, another 50,000 San Franciscans are still stuck with 1990s-era dial-up connections.
And most heartbreakingly, 61 percent of San Francisco school-age students said in a recent survey that a lack of internet access has prevented them from completing a homework assignment.
All of this is why Supervisor Mark Farrell is working on a series of reports, proposals, and commissions with the hope of creating a citywide fiber network that would provide high-speed internet access to all San Franciscans, regardless of their ability to pay. The network would treat internet access like a public utility, to which all residents would have a basic right.
“As we sit here in the innovation capital of the world and the technology center of the world in San Francisco, it is a shame that we still have over 100,000 San Francisco residents, principally low-income and minority individuals, that do not have internet access at home,” Farrell tells SF Weekly.
“At a minimum, 15 percent of our public school children don’t have internet access at home, while we’re mandating that they take tests online,” he continues. “For them to be handicapped at home with their homework and with their digital literacy is in many ways criminal. It’s not something the city of San Francisco should stand idly by and condone.”
Farrell was the driving force behind the 2014 effort that brought free wifi networks to 32 San Francisco parks and public spaces. And by “driving force,” we mean he procured a $600,000 gift from Google to fund the project that now provides the #SFWiFi network accessible in Dolores Park, Alamo Square, and dozens of other city parks and rec centers.
But Farrell’s proposed municipal fiber network would be far more powerful than what we call “wifi.” Wifi is essentially a bare-bones, radio wave-style form of internet access that has a limited range. It’s highly insecure, too, slower and far less reliable than your home internet service. Fiber networks are the current gold standard for high-speed internet data transmissions, and they’re significantly faster than technologies like wifi, DSL, and wireless broadband.
A citywide fiber network wouldn’t just benefit the economically disenfranchised — it would dramatically improve internet speed for every person and business in San Francisco. The plan calls for “Gigabit-speed internet,” which is industry terminology for
fiber internet systems that deliver data transmission at speeds of one gigabyte per second. That’s almost certainly faster than what you have right now, whether you’re at home or at work. Only 2.6 percent of San Franciscans have internet that fast, according to an analysis by internet-metrics service Ookla.
To be fair, a few providers insist they’ll be offering comparable speeds in the near future. Comcast announced in late May that they’re bringing gigabit internet to the Bay Area — at the price of $160 a month. Sonic offers gigabit internet in a limited number of neighborhoods for a $58 monthly fee.
These price points may sound a little steep to you, but they are completely prohibitive to many San Francisco residents.
“One of the principal barriers to internet access is the cost involved,” Farrell says. “If we’re going to bridge the digital divide here in San Francisco, if we’re going to lift up low-income and minority communities, if we’re going to ensure that every single San Francisco public school child is on equal footing, ensuring affordable and subsidized high-speed internet is essential to achieving that goal.”
We should be note that “affordable” and “subsidized” are two different things. “Affordable” means less expensive, while “subsidized” means free. If you can afford to pay for internet access now, you are not likely to get free high-speed internet from this proposed municipal network. The details of the proposed network haven’t even been finalized by the working group behind it, but the group is determined that the poorest San Franciscans would get free internet access.
“The principal will not change,” Farrell says. “This project will deliver affordable internet to every San Francisco resident — including, in many cases, 100-percent subsidized internet access. The exact delivery mechanism is still to be worked out as we finalize the structure of our project. But residents should have no doubt that [free internet] is a core part of what we are doing.”
This might sound similar to Google Fiber, an ambitious project started in 2011 to bring Google-owned fiber networks to various U.S. cities. Google Fiber was initially installed in Kansas City, Mo., and was later expanded into Austin, Texas, Provo, Utah, and a few other cities.
Google Fiber even announced in February of last year that it was bringing its gigabit fiber service to San Francisco, where so many Google employees live. But those lofty plans came to a complete halt when parent company Alphabet pulled the plug on Fiber in October.
“We’re going to pause our operations and offices while we refine our approaches,” said Craig Barratt, CEO of the Alphabet division Access that managed Google Fiber. That corporate-speak meant Google Fiber would not be coming to any more new markets, killing planned expansions into San Francisco, San Jose, and other Bay Area cities.
That was not the first time that San Francisco swung and missed on a citywide internet network. Back in 2004, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom proposed a free wireless network called San Francisco Municipal Wireless, to be powered by Google and Earthlink. (Remember them?)
Earthlink backed out of that deal in 2007, and San Francisco Municipal Wireless died. That’s just one of the myriad ways citywide internet plans can go haywire. Even if Farrell’s plan gets enacted, delays and cost overruns are almost certain for a citywide network we haven’t even started building.
And we are far from breaking ground. Farrell’s working group San Franciscans for Municipal Fiber is still in the process of assessing costs, evaluating vendors, and drafting a proposal. Assuming the proposal passes the Board of Supervisors and the mayor’s desk, we’d still be looking at another full year of requests for proposals before installers start busting up the streets to put in this new citywide fiber network.
But it would make San Francisco the largest U.S. city to offer internet connections to every resident, all over town. Farrell sees this as a significant move against our persistent income inequality and reducing current barriers to education.
“If we are able to achieve our goals, we truly will be able to change the lives of generations of San Francisco residents,” Farrell says.
For many San Franciscans, a citywide fiber network might change our lives with faster or more convenient internet access. But for a low-income high school student applying online for college or doing research for a project, it could be a chance to save the world.