Can San Francisco Finally Close its Digital Divide?

One out of every eight San Francisco residents still doesn’t have an internet connection at home. Here’s how public officials and private companies think they can fix that.

Design by Sophia Valdes

There’s a big disconnect in the country’s tech capital.

In the same city where companies like Twitter, Uber, and Airbnb have grown into global tech giants, more than 100,000 San Franciscans — or about one out of every eight — lack high-speed internet access at home.

In 2015, then-President Barack Obama called out San Francisco’s lackluster performance in a video about the need for ensuring all Americans have affordable high-speed broadband internet. San Francisco was at the tail end of a list of cities that he described as not “moving as fast when it comes to broadband.” He listed some of the consequences of those slow speeds, from losing business to making research harder for students.

Three years later, San Francisco found itself back on the national stage for its internet access. This time, though, it was because the city took one of its most tangible steps up to that point toward creating a citywide, gigabit-speed fiber internet service — an offering that would be five times faster than the city’s average speeds that Obama had called out.

The push toward that citywide fiber network over several years, led by former San Francisco Supervisor-turned-Mayor Mark Farrell, may have been doomed from the start. The estimated $1.9 billion cost of the project offered an easy argument against it in a city grappling with a growing housing and homelessness crisis. The effort also became subject to a condensed timeline following the death of Mayor Ed Lee, who had been a champion of the initiative. Any discussion of continuing the project seemed to disappear once Farrell completed his time as interim mayor last summer.

But just having the debate about whether and how to set up a citywide fiber network in San Francisco, paired with some of the policy groundwork laid to make the plan more feasible, set off a series of expansions by internet service providers big and small. Between these private investments and the city’s new digital equity strategy, San Francisco may finally be on a path to closing its digital divide.

Buffering

San Francisco’s digital divide is a stubborn one, with the number seemingly not budging significantly in studies over the past few years.

Most recently, the city conducted a community needs assessment in 2018 that found more than 100,000 people in the city still lack high-speed internet at home. The survey also showed low-income residents, those making below $25,000 in annual household income, were the least likely to have access.

It’s not that San Francisco lacks service options on the whole: Providers offering service in at least some parts of the city include Comcast, AT&T, Wave, Sonic, Monkeybrains, and Webpass. The divide comes down to which parts of the city those providers cover, what kind of service they offer in those areas, and who is ultimately left unable to afford internet service or is dissuaded from buying it given the service and price options where they live.

A growing number of people in the country who don’t have high-speed home internet cite the ability to access the internet using their smartphone as a reason for going without an internet subscription, according to Pew Research Center.

But only accessing the internet through a smartphone can cut people off from some of the opportunities they would otherwise have if accessing it with a computer.

One thing the city’s community needs assessment showed was that “access is not a binary issue,” Alex Banh, digital equity manager for San Francisco, tells SF Weekly. Access comes in many shades based on factors such as how reliable that access is and how often someone has that access.

“We met a lot of residents who are relying on smartphones and mobile data plans for the entire family,” Banh says. And when a family is sharing the same data plan for everything from the kids doing their homework to the parents looking up commute information, he adds, it can create a pattern where there’s good speed at the beginning of the month, but data throttling and data caps lead to less reliable access by the end of the month.

Preston Rhea, Director of Engineering for Policy Programs at Monkeybrains. Photo by Kevin N. Hume

 

 

Dialing up the competition

The amount of competition, at least among internet service providers in San Francisco, seems to be increasing.

Incumbents like AT&T and Comcast, who can leverage their telephone and cable networks to provide internet, offer service in large swaths of the city.

Comcast covers 98 percent of San Francisco, and all of that network is capable of delivering gigabit speeds to customers who choose to pay for it. Comcast enabled the gigabit speed in San Francisco with an upgrade to its network in 2017.

Elaine Barden, vice president of business development and strategic initiatives for Comcast California, tells SF Weekly that San Francisco is “probably the most competitive environment that we have in the Northern California area.”

Other providers have been expanding or upgrading their service across the city in recent years, too.

Santa Rosa-based provider Sonic has deployed fiber to more than one-third of homes in San Francisco over the past five years, Sonic CEO and co-founder Dane Jasper tells SF Weekly.

Even though San Francisco had explored the idea of citywide internet service in various forms over the past decade, with none of them coming to fruition, the latest attempt seemed to heighten the attention of the private sector. 

“The benefit of having those conversations is that it forces companies like Comcast and others to be on their toes,” Joan Hammel, senior director of public relations for Comcast California, tells SF Weekly. “We have to be bringing the best solutions to market, and it’s … furthering innovation and technology deployment at a very rapid pace.”

Lost connection

Does sparking a spate of private investment make an otherwise failed citywide fiber effort a success?

While the city’s fiber project is not technically dead, there hasn’t appeared to be any action on it for more than a year, since Farrell wrapped his time as interim mayor.

Farrell, who was first elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 2010, led the citywide fiber effort throughout his time in office.

Jess Montejano, who was a senior advisor to Farrell, tells SF Weekly that Farrell’s team worked in close coordination with the administration of the late Mayor Lee, a passionate supporter of the project. Lee died of cardiac arrest in December 2017, during his second term that was set to run until January 2020. It shortened the timeline that the citywide fiber supporters had expected to have.

“I still remember one of his last words … to Mark (Farrell) and I in the board chambers was, ‘Let’s make sure we get this done for the people of San Francisco,’” Montejano says. “Those words really stuck with us.”

After Lee’s death, Farrell was elected by his fellow supervisors as interim mayor to serve through July 2018. During his time in that role, the city issued a request for qualifications from teams that could deliver on the citywide fiber idea. It was the first formal step in making the network a reality. The plan was to offer internet that would cost no more than $60 per month for residents and be provided free to people with income below the federal poverty level.

Farrell’s team had already been laying the groundwork for the network and working to boost internet service provider competition with other policies. Farrell introduced legislation nearly a year earlier that would have allowed microtrenching in the city, a process that can help internet service providers lay fiber at a lower cost than traditional methods. That proposal didn’t make it through, and microtrenching still isn’t allowed in the city, a point some say makes it more expensive and challenging for providers to extend their fiber offerings.

Another piece of legislation led by Farrell that did pass has been cited by at least two providers as making a significant difference in how many people they can serve. The law says that multiple-occupancy building owners can’t block their tenants from using the internet service provider of their choice. It took aim at the exclusive deals that are sometimes struck between one internet service provider and a building owner that prevents competing providers from servicing a building.

Before that law passed unanimously in December 2016, Jasper says Sonic was blocked from entering about 96 buildings in the city. With the law in place, that number has decreased to less than 10.

San Francisco-based Monkeybrains has cited the ordinance with five owners or property managers of buildings in the city, and three of those cases have been resolved.   

If the citywide fiber network had moved forward, the law also would have helped the city ensure that any private entity leasing fiber from the city wouldn’t have been stymied by existing arrangements in buildings.    

Farrell’s team knew that the city’s two incumbent providers, AT&T and Comcast, “were not going to be particularly friendly to our efforts, given their history of trying to beat back municipal fiber efforts throughout the country,” Montejano says.

Hefty costs

The next big hurdle for the citywide fiber network was its price tag. A report commissioned by the city to explore potential business models and costs associated with the project estimated the price tag could reach $1.9 billion.

It made the project a target.

Tech industry group sf.citi testified against the proposal, saying “resources would be better directed toward more pressing issues like homelessness and housing.” The sf.citi board includes AT&T’s director of external affairs in San Francisco and Comcast’s director of government affairs. An sf.citi staff member told SF Weekly the group couldn’t arrange an interview unless it was provided with a list of questions in advance, which is not a standard journalistic practice.

Farrell’s team continued working on the idea, trying to determine whether a ballot measure raising money for the project would be successful.

At least one poll on the ballot measure idea found public support was “just short of the two-thirds needed to pass,” according to a San Francisco Examiner report. In his final few weeks in office, Farrell decided not to move forward with putting the revenue-generating measure on the November 2018 ballot.

The project ground to a halt. Both Monkeybrains and Sonic were among teams that were selected as the three qualifying bidders who could have competed once a request for proposal was issued.

But the teams received notice that the project was being put on hold, according to an Examiner article, which cited a city letter to the bidders stating: “In the coming months, the City intends to research a number of factors, including how market conditions and the construction environment would affect the project.”

While the process could ostensibly be picked back up if the city sees fit, several people with knowledge of the project say no official action has taken place since that letter.

Mason Carroll, left, lead engineer with Monkeybrains, and field engineer Caleb DuBois check on a fiber optic cable as they upgrade fiber equipment for the building at 220 Golden Gate Ave. Photo ny Kevin N. Hume

 

 

Developing digital equity

Supervisor London Breed was elected to succeed Farrell as mayor. When Breed took office in July 2018, Farrell’s team handed off research and information on the work they had done to that point on the effort.

People ultimately elect a mayor to be in charge of certain priorities, though. And Breed is faced with a homelessness crisis that residents have rated as the top issue facing the city.

Breed’s administration has found a way to incorporate the work on closing the digital divide into its work on housing, with the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development becoming the home of the SF Digital Equity Initiative in August.

Building on the community needs assessment it conducted last year, the city plans to release a Digital Equity Strategic Plan  this fall. The executive summary of that plan refers to digital equity as a civil right.   

One part of the city’s multi-pronged digital equity effort is the Fiber to Housing program, which launched in 2018 and won a national award this year. 

The Fiber to Housing collaboration between the city and Monkeybrains has already provided free, high-speed internet to more than 1,500 low-income families in 13 housing communities. The plan is to connect another 1,600 households by June 2020. Altogether, the city estimates the project will provide a service benefit of some $400 million over 20 years. 

The program is an encapsulation of many of the elements necessary to close the digital divide, Preston Rhea, director of engineering for the policy program at Monkeybrains, tells SF Weekly.

The city connected the housing to fiber, Monkeybrains delivers the service and is on call to fix any problems, and digital literacy training is offered on site to ensure people know how to use the internet in the way that they want to once they have access to it. That is the component that will really start closing the digital divide, Rhea says.

Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, co-authored a report this year about how the Fiber to Housing program could offer a blueprint for other cities working on closing their digital divide.

Mitchell tells SF Weekly that he hopes there will be more studies of what happens when ubiquitous, high-quality internet access is provided to low-income families. It could help make the case for government investments in such programs.

“People who are in public housing who have high-quality internet access will be more likely to be able to get educational benefits, to improve their opportunities to apply for jobs, but also access government services,” Mitchell says. “And as government services go to more and more of an online delivery mechanism, it will save all of us money in the management of those programs.”

Linda Gerull, CIO and executive director of the San Francisco Department of Technology, tells SF Weekly that the city is “committing resources and energy and talent” to closing the digital divide.

“But we are also seeing that our private partners, who are very committed to the city, feel a community sense and obligation to assist as well,” Gerull says.

More attention certainly appears to be turning to the issue, even at a national scale. In August, Comcast expanded eligibility for its Internet Essentials program, which provides internet for under $10 per month. The expansion made more than 1 million additional households in the state, and 3 million nationwide, eligible for the discounted service.

Charting a new path

San Francisco may be near another inflection point on its journey to connect residents to the internet.

In September, Breed offered to buy utility company PG&E’s equipment in San Francisco for $2.5 billion, a move supervisors are backing unanimously. If the purchase becomes reality, it could open a new path — literally — for the city to pursue a citywide fiber network. The city would ostensibly own all of the power poles and underground conduit that would allow it to bring fiber citywide.

Rhea wrote an op-ed exploring the idea, noting that “building this network as an energy utility would reduce costs by as much as a third compared to negotiating with PG&E as a third party.” 

Regardless of what happens with the latest buzz about whether the city could finally realize the long-discussed fiber network, the city is set to continue its work on closing the digital divide. It plans to roll out a Digital Equity Scorecard in 2020 that would provide annual reports on the digital divide.

Internet service providers, in the meantime, aren’t sitting still, either. 

“In San Francisco today there is far more competitive choice than ever in the past,” Sonic’s Jasper says. “But there’s definitely still work to be done.”

 

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