San Francisco, Seattle Planning To Launch Citywide Fiber Networks To Bury Telecom Monopolies

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When you think of the availability of high-speed internet access in the United States, not many people have a wide range of options to choose from. You might have one large cable provider (i.e. ComcastCharter) to choose from, and if you're lucky (if you can call it that) a second-tier option like AT&T DSL. Customers would like choice when it comes to internet service providers, but big telecoms coupled with local and state governments often get in the way of those aspirations.

However, two cities are looking to take the fight to big telecoms by proposing that they build their own fiber internet networks that would service their respective communities. Those two cities are Seattle, Washington and San Francisco, California.

Seattle mayoral candidate Cary Moon is pushing hard for municipal internet as part of her campaign platform, and she wants equal access for residents (treating it as another public utility like power or water). "You need high-speed internet to survive in this world, to do homework, to hunt for a job, to participate in the economy in a thousand ways, you have to have access to the internet," said Moon at the Seattle Interactive Conference earner this month.

“Municipal broadband is one of those issues where we know the right thing to do and we keep not doing it because of power and money,” Moon added. “The way you combat that is with an irrefutable vision and a broad coalition that’s building that vision together."


Not surprisingly, telecom companies are not thrilled about the potential for a kumbaya moment with respect to municipal internet. In fact, telecom companies including Comcast and CenturyLink have funneled $50,000 in campaign contributions to Moon's opponent, Jenny Durkan, for the mayoral seat. Durkan feels that municipal internet is too cost prohibitive and instead favors building out free public Wi-Fi (which doesn't exactly solve the issue of delivering high-speed fiber access within homes and business).

While Seattle residents will have their chance to pick the candidate that most closely reflects their ideals on November 7th, San Francisco is also delving into the fiber internet debate. The city just put forward a proposal to build its own internet network to battle Comcast, which controls much of the high-speed internet access in the city.

The plan [PDF] was outlined by Mayor Ed Lee, the city's fiber efforts would be divided into "dark" and "lit" segments. Dark fiber would consist of basic fiber infrastructure throughout the city, while lit fiber would deliver internet access to residents/customers. In practice, the dark fiber network would extend to nearly every home and business within the city, and private operators would lease access to the network from the city. These operators would then have the opportunity to install their own equipment to deliver internet access to customers.


Since the city wouldn't control both control the underlying network while at the same time providing internet services to customers, it hopes to avoid some of the same legal challenges that have loomed over existing municipal internet projects across the country.

Federal courts barred the city of Wilson, North Carolina from providing its high-speed Greenlight high-speed internet access outside its city limits despite the fact that it is able to provide power to those same customers. What's disheartening is that the town of Wilson was trying to provide access to traditionally underserved areas of the state with regards to internet connectivity. But successful lobbying by big telecoms helped gut its efforts. Wilson City Manager Grant Goings said back in September 2016:

This is bigger than Wilson. This is about the rural areas, particularly in eastern North Carolina, because the majority of the area does not present enough profitability to attract the private-sector investment. As a community, a state and frankly as a nation, we need to find ways to connect these rural communities, and our city council believes strongly that our state officials should focus on being part of the solution instead of constructing barriers to prevent communities from being served.

A similar campaign against municipal internet was waged against the Chattanooga Electric Power Board (EPB). The city of Chattanooga, Tennessee practically begged Comcast to improve internet speeds within the city, but the company refused. So, the EPB decided to build out its own fiber internet infrastructure to service its population. Naturally, Comcast sued to block the construction of the network, but thankfully was unsuccessful in its efforts.

In the fallout of the Comcast's municipal internet temper tantrum, it eventually brought 2Gbps internet to the city.