San Francisco Internet Challenges Feds, Major ISPs

With municipal broadband, the city launches a fight for net neutrality and robust privacy protections. But are local smaller internet service providers on board?

After a Reddit basketball stream slowed to a stop last Thursday, angry users hit the thread’s message board pointing fingers.

“Everything is laggy. Was net neutrality repealed today?” Bk7 asked.

Elderkwhiglord thought so, posting, “It’s your internet service provider slowing down or blocking these sites, none of the links work. There’s the repeal of the net neutrality rules at work.”

The answer to the Redditor’s allegation is of course, no, not yet. Net neutrality rules — which bar broadband providers from blocking and slowing down certain websites over others — will stay put until April 23. That’s when the Federal Communications Commission shifts away from regulating the internet as a public utility, retreating to the “light-touch regulatory scheme” passed by the Republican-led FCC commission last December.

But as the federal government ditches net-neutrality rules, cities and states around the country are taking matters into their own hands. And a report released last Thursday calls on San Francisco to lead the way.

Back in 2016, Mayor Mark Farrell spearheaded the idea for a citywide municipal broadband system while a supervisor.

“San Francisco has a plan to fight back, by owning our network and placing conditions on that network that make internet service providers, by law, follow net-neutrality standards,” Jess Montejano, senior advisor to Mayor Mark Farrell, told SF Weekly.

While San Francisco strategizes its rollout of a citywide municipal fiber network, academics and outside internet advocacy experts are calling on the city to seize the moment. On top of endorsing net neutrality, the Blue Ribbon Panel on Municipal Fiber published a set of recommendations last Thursday calling on San Francisco to force ISPs (tapping into the city-owned internet infrastructure) into adhering to the strongest privacy and network securities in the nation.

If adopted, the recommendations would fly in the face of two recent federal regulatory rollbacks: net neutrality and the FCC’s March reversal of other Obama-era rules requiring that companies receive permission from customers before using their information to create targeted advertisements.

The primary goal of the citywide internet plan is to get as many San Franciscans on the internet as possible. By doing so, San Francisco will be regulating the internet like a 21st-century utility, similar to how the FCC operated under Obama. According to city data, 100,000 San Franciscans do not have a home internet connection. The city hopes that by owning “the pipes” — the fiber-optic wires under the streets through which the internet travels — large ISPs like Comcast and AT&T Inc. will finally face some competition. Increased competition, the report says, should result in lower prices and faster service.

But one local ISP has security concerns with the city’s plan, which is not yet defined beyond the general description embedded in the request for qualifications released on Jan. 31.

The model calls for a public-private partnership, which will place the control of the day to day operations of the city-owned municipal broadband highway into the hands of private companies, creating a potential conflict of interest.

“I’m worried the public-private partnership will want this fiber to terminate in a private building where they have other business relations,” said Rudy Rucker, co-founder of local ISP Monkeybrains.

Instead of a private building capturing all the data from the citywide network, Rucker wants to see the process occur in a publicly-owned building. Beyond security concerns, the co-founders of Monkeybrains are also generally confused about how the new regime will impact smaller-scale ISPs who primarily make money by physically installing the internet. 

“We’re ultimately for a pro-competition model that allows ISPs to compete in a marketplace,” said Alex Menendez, the other co-founder.

It’s not yet clear what the new plan will do for jobs locally, although one possibility scares Menendez.

“You can be an ISP in Utah,” he says, “and you can be getting customers in San Francisco, and have zero employees in the city limits.”

Montejano claims the exact opposite will happen.

“If we have more choice and competition in the marketplace, we’re actually going to provide more jobs. Our report from our fiber consultant says this could create hundreds of new jobs,” Montejano said.

If the city’s plan works out, San Francisco will join more than 130 communities in 27 states with a publicly owned network offering service speeds of at least one gigabit. Using that platform, San Francisco appears poised to spark a nationwide conversation on whether or not the internet should be a publicly owned utility.

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