Fiber-Optic Illusion

Why Tom Ammiano's plans to create a city-owned broadband network are a boondoggle-in-the-making

When I first ran across the proposal by Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Chris Daly to fund a $300,000 study on whether the city should go into the business of providing Internet, cable TV, and telephone services to San Franciscans, it seemed like a champion idea. The measure, passed unanimously by the Board of Supervisors last week, will pay analysts to investigate whether the city should embark on a multimillion-dollar program of laying fiber-optic cable in trenches to be dug during an upcoming sewer-system overhaul.

I imagined the new public fiber-optic network functioning somewhat like the streets above, which enable things such as cheap, fresh grocery produce because the government maintains a public way to get from farm to store. With a city-owned broadband network, I imagined, monopoly telephone and cable TV companies wouldn't control electronic communication. Internet-based services such as voice telephone calls and home-delivered groceries would become cheap and convenient, like grocery produce is now. Commerce, education, and communication, I imagined, would flourish, and the city's two main suppliers of broadband Internet access, Comcast and SBC Communications, would no longer be able to extract unfair profits from the exchange of digital information.

But I was wrong. Ammiano's measure is a boondoggle-in-the-making. Laying fiber-optic cable in the sewers would be a mammoth and duplicative waste of money that would not really advance the cause of creating a public communications network. And that's not just me saying it.

“We have plenty of fiber already in the metro area,” says San Francisco Telecommunications Commission Vice President Sunil Daluvoy — to whom an Ammiano staffer referred me as the foremost expert on the issue of creating a government-owned broadband network. “The city already has a lot of fiber of its own that's not being utilized. There are also a number of companies that offer [access to] it at dirt-cheap prices.”

Yale Braunstein, a professor in the School of Information Management and Systems at the University of California at Berkeley and one of America's most outspoken critics of private monopoly control of electronic networks, says the proposed San Francisco venture would be doomed to fail. Other public telecom and cable systems, such as a recently privatized one in Palo Alto, have bet on their status as the monopoly provider for success. After struggling with steep losses for years, the Palo Alto co-op sold out to a private operator.

If San Francisco built its own municipal fiber-optic system, the city would become just one of several broadband providers. The economics for public cable or telecommunications networks pencil out only when the public entity is stepping in as a sole provider, and even then, such projects have a history of failure, Braunstein says.

“San Francisco has the most improbable likelihood of success of doing this that I could imagine. You've got to wonder how this makes any sense on several levels,” Braunstein says. “I've been an adviser to cable cooperatives, and I've been a big supporter of this basic concept. But I don't think you could do this in greater metropolitan San Francisco.”

As San Francisco boondoggles go, this $300,000 study — and who-knows-how-many-million-dollar fiber-laying project — is a mere whisper in the wind. Yet it becomes more of a screaming fit in the library when one considers that Ammiano and his fellow supervisors are proposing we throw a tax fortune at the idea of providing better local telecom options for consumers, when for the past six years they've advocated policies that ensure the grip of local monopolists SBC and Comcast on our digital information systems.

For reasons I'll explain, Ammiano's advocacy on behalf of small groups of neighborhood activists who believe, without evidence, that new cell-phone antennae harm their children's brains may have helped preserve SBC and Comcast control over San Francisco data and voice networks. Widespread substitution of cell phones for local home lines represents one of the greatest threats to SBC's monopoly. New wireless broadband technology being implemented this year could threaten the dominance of Comcast and SBC over fast Internet access.

Yet Ammiano's anti-antenna campaign has made San Francisco cell service some of the worst in the world.

“If they would spend the same energy on encouraging new entrants into the local telecom market” as they have on city fiber optics, notes Daluvoy, the city Telecommunications Commission VP, “the economic benefit to the city would be tenfold.”

Ammiano and all the other candidates participating in the horrible experiment called district-by-district Board of Supervisors elections in November simply cannot seem to consider economic or social benefits to the city at large. They're not hired to do this, nor are they allowed to do so once in office.

Take, for example, the bizarre policy situation surrounding San Francisco telecommunications. Politicians have vigorously pursued policies encouraging monopoly stranglehold over electronic services — then proposed dumping a mountain of city money on the problem of a monopoly stranglehold over electronic services — in one of many instances in which our city legislators are not rewarded for looking at the big picture, because the big picture doesn't much interest their most vocal local constituents.

“Why is San Francisco the most difficult city in which to get these things built? The time to get a permit in San Francisco is more difficult than anywhere else. If you let these local but organized groups impact everyone else, you're never going to accomplish anything. I can tell you, the people affected aren't at those hearings,” says Daluvoy, who could be talking about difficulties involved in erecting new apartment buildings or homeless shelters in San Francisco.

But he's talking about cell phone towers.

An inquisitive foreigner arriving in San Francisco and wanting to understand how city government works would need to arm herself with only this fact: A tiny band of paranoid people who hold the unsubstantiated belief that corporations are altering their children's brains with radio signals from the sky have frightened legislators into worsening San Francisco's digital future.

A typical example of such noxious “activism” is Noe Valley Families, a group of self-appointed medical theorists formed six years ago to overturn an agreement between a church, Noe Valley Ministry, and a couple of cell phone companies to install antennae in the church's steeple.

There have been studies, all inconclusive, examining possible effects that radio-frequency radiation emitting from cell phones may have on people's brains. But these studies look at the theoretical harm that may or may not be caused by putting a cell phone receiver next to your ear. The amount of radiation reaching people's bodies from cell phone broadcast antennae is far less significant. It's less than the amount one would encounter while walking by a house with an operating garage door opener.

Nonetheless, Tom Ammiano — like his colleagues, loath to let a local constituent group go unpandered to — took up the cause of Noe Valley Families, and the church and the cell phone companies canceled their antenna plan.

Given that cell phones barely work in the city — mine drops calls 100 yards from Sutro Tower, the massive antenna sprouting from the saddle between Mount Sutro and Twin Peaks — cell phone companies have continued to seek permits for additional antennae. Ever ready to please vociferous individual constituents, no matter how unreasonable, Ammiano proposed a resolution that would have imposed a citywide moratorium on such antennae.

Fortunately, in drafting the Telecommunications Act of 1996, federal legislators envisioned the political threat of quack theories about the effects of cell phone radiation and made it illegal for communities to ban antennae based on perceptions about health threats. Undaunted, the Board of Supervisors ordered the city legislative analyst's office to study how San Francisco government might get around this law.

With the help of advice from the City Attorney's Office and other relevant bureaucracies, city analyst Adam Van de Water a year ago submitted a lengthy report showing ways this wasn't practical. As it happens, thwarting cell phone antennae can be done easily enough on a case-by-case basis. Step 1: The Planning Commission approves an antenna, based on a 30-page book of guidelines. Next: A neighborhood group appeals the decision to the Board of Supervisors. Third: The supes vote the antenna down.

“And seven out of the last seven times this has happened, the board has sided with the neighbors,” Van de Water says.

Although there's scarcely a politician in the city who'll say it, the only real way to repair San Francisco's zany, ineffective process for addressing problems — a process that bows before silly localized concerns and ignores important citywide needs — is to get rid of district elections.

At a press conference earlier this month, Ammiano and other politicians touted a city-owned fiber-optic system as a way to close the digital divide between the rich who have high-speed Internet access and the poor who often don't even have computers.

But in the mind of Telecommunications Commission Vice President Daluvoy, who previously worked with the Federal Communications Commission formulating policies to promote the deployment of broadband networks, the best hope for creating citywide Internet access that doesn't rely on SBC or Comcast is a technology called fixed wireless. Fixed wireless depends on a cell phone receiver stationed permanently in the home. Such a receiver would function in the same way as the home phone lines that now carry high-speed DSL service.

“Look at the transportation analogy, in which you have freeways, boulevards, and small streets going to homes. We have a tremendous amount of fiber already in what you could refer to as the freeways, even in the boulevards. Where you don't have capacity is the narrow streets to the home. That's where the shortage is,” Daluvoy says. “The quickest way to fill that capacity to that part of the roads is to go wireless.”

The cellular telephone industry realizes this. And all major national cellular carriers are currently creating wireless broadband service, which extends cellular phone networks to high-speed Internet access. AT&T Wireless began offering such a service two months ago in the South Bay, with plans for other cities nationwide.

But thanks to the legacy of Ammiano and his fellow supervisors, San Francisco may remain one of the few cities where this cellular technology is not a viable option to SBC and Comcast.

Because to have increased cellular service, you need more cellular antennae, and you can't have more cellular antennae if you're going to quaver in fear before small neighborhood groups that believe — but have absolutely no evidence — that cell phone radio waves emitted from these antennae harm children's brains.

In the area of cable-based broadband, local telephone service, and television, a company called RCN Telecom Services Inc. has been struggling for three years to provide an alternative to Comcast and SBC in some of San Francisco's southeastern neighborhoods. Battling giants isn't easy. Earlier this year the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, from which it hopes to emerge next year.

Supervisor, neighborhood-group panderer, and government-fiber-in-the-sewers supporter Jake McGoldrick, meanwhile, was recently heard in committee leading the charge in trying to squeeze every last possible penny in cable license fees out of RCN. In exchange for a new permit, the company will pay the city $400,000 per year.

The contract went into effect just as the board decided to spend $300,000 studying the issue of providing a city-owned alternative to Comcast and SBC.

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