San Francisco Considers Municipal Broadband


San Francisco, California is considering a municipal broadband network. Support for a city-backed network has grown among local municipal leaders following the results of an internet access survey that the conducted earlier this month. The results of that survey shows that there are many local residents without affordable high-speed internet access.

According to a piece in the San Francisco Examiner, the survey revealed that existing low-cost internet service programs like Comcast Essentials which costs around $40 per month aren’t well utilized and may still be out of reach to large portions of the local population. In recent years, the city has moved to offer free wifi in city parks although that’s also not necessarily a solution that will solve access issues for a lot of people.

That brings us to yesterday, and a new report published by San Francisco Municipal Supervisor Mark Farrell, making the case for a citywide broadband network.

“The digital divide in San Francisco is marginalizing generations of San Franciscans,” said Farrell. “Every resident, business, and nonprofit deserves access to fast, affordable, and reliable broadband to compete in the 21st century.”

The report was written by Harvard Law professor and committee co-chair Susan Crawford, who has done significant work on broadband access. Data in the report shows that 14 percent of students in San Francisco, for example, lack internet service at home which impedes their ability to complete homework at home and engage in educational enrichment outside of school.

The panel’s report cites research and studies that build a strong case for why San Francisco should oversee the construction of a citywide open access municipal fiber network. Additionally, the report details why a basic citywide fiber broadband network, made available to competing retail providers will outcompete older, slower Internet access networks made up of copper or co-axial cable networks. And, why mobile, or wireless only Internet options are not sufficient means of fast and reliable Internet connection because they are more susceptible to interferences that slow, or disrupt Internet connection. Advanced wireless services will, in fact, require fiber to be in place to function.

Further, the panel’s report cites studies that show when cities construct or offer basic fiber infrastructure, they enhance competition and market choices, and don’t eliminate the market for directly serving customers. With the right “open access” policy in place, Internet Service Providers could use the city’s fiber network in competition with one another in order to deliver higher quality services at lower prices.

“The private sector has failed to provide fast and affordable Internet service on its own,” said Farrell. “It’s time for cities to get involved and close the digital divide.”

The report says that while private companies will understandably focus on their own economic interests, local governments are more likely to consider a broader range of issues, such as ensuring service to the underserved and other broader social and economic goals. The private market has little to no incentive to prioritize communities most affected by the digital divide. The big Internet access companies generally do not take action to improve pricing or upgrade networks until market competition spurs them to action.

The full report is available here.