San Francisco Board of Supervisors vs. Fiber Internet

“What is this, Mumbai?” Said by a visiting Canadian engineer while looking out my study window in the Mission.

Regarding the San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting about the plan to install 726 utility boxes, as required to implement ATT’s plan to roll out high-speed internet citywide. Both video and minutes will be available at some point in the future.

My statement for the board, submitted to the clerk:

Statement for the board of supervisors, San Francisco concerning woeful internet infrastructure.

As a San Francisco resident, I am concerned about the present state of our communications infrastructure. In my professional career, I interact with many software engineers all over the world. When they visit San Francisco, one of the items that invariably comes up is our woeful internet infrastructure.

How can it be, visiting engineers will ask, can the city minutes from the heart of Silicon Valley, with Google, Twitter, all of media gulch, have both poor wireless capability for mobile devices and ancient DSL? In Europe, “regular” DSL, nothing fancy and available for ~$40 a month, is capable of 18Mbps downstream, and 2 Mbps up. This includes free VOIP, digital television, and more. But let’s just concentrate on bandwidth capability, regardless of cost.

A San Francisco resident is hard-pressed to find such bandwidth, at any price, in San Francisco proper. There are three obvious choices for wired, residential high-speed internet in SF:

1) Verizon FIOS. This is only available in SF’s Financial District, and in select parts of Mission Bay.

2) Comcast coax-fiber hybrid. For just internet alone, this would be around $120. Some companies are pooling employees and negotiating better rates, but this is not an option for the rest of the public.

3) ATT Uverse fiber. This is not available in SF due to past issues, see 2008 attempt. The highest-bandwidth Uverse in SF is Plain Old Copper DSL and stuck at 6Mbps maximum.

High speed internet access is vital for collaborative software development, and sadly San Francisco is not competitive with cities such as Austin, Chicago, and New York in the United States, and Paris, Berlin, Madrid, and London in Europe, or Seoul, Tokyo, and Bangalore in Asia.

Allowing ATT to proceed with its Uverse installation in SF would be a small step to help restore competitiveness. And a welcome sign. I would like to see the SF Board of Supervisors go much further, and allow all three network providers equal access to San Francisco property owners, with the end goal to make San Francisco a true world competitor in internet infrastructure, with all residents having access to highest-bandwidth internet from multiple providers.

Once that was properly filed, I sat in the lovely meeting room in City Hall and tried not to fidget during a four hour plus meeting. Free WiFi vs. rather austere bench seating. Mostly I just listened, but I jotted some notes down on my phone. These notes are only on the first four hours.

Speaker list: how do people get on this list. Some confusion about who is speaking for and against the boxes.

CEQA? Environmental regulation that may apply to this roll-out, if San Francisco Beautiful’s appeal is successful.

SF fiber coalition member says: bring pure fiber to home! Long term strategy for bandwidth lacking. USA is 30th in the world, San Francisco Bay Area even worse. Who cares about 24Mbps maximum when Tokyo has Hikari-Fiber and 100Mbps. Who cares about 24Mbps maximum when Google is putting 1Gbps in Kansas City, Kansas. Agreed! And Sonic.net is putting gig ethernet in Sebastopol, much closer to home.

Monkeybrains.net founder says this ATT plan is antiquated, need fiber to the home not neighborhood. Microtrenching. Classic SF tech slacker look. Right on!!

Some issues with side-walk right of way for existing Muni and Telecom boxes as well as traffic signaling equipment. Will Muni upgrades also force an environmental impact review? Even bike racks are a cause of blight? Wow. San Francisco Beautiful may have overstepped with that one… one can pick on the geeks all you want, but the bicyclists in this town…. they will cut you. Need for some kind of planning process for side-walks?

New DSL equipment is to be placed within 300 feet of existing SAI cabinets for ATT services. DPW makes undergrounding decisions on an ad hoc basis, each site is unique. Size requirement increases if underground due to OSHA regulations, 8 by 12 to 13 feet if undergrounding as opposed to 4 by 4 by 2. Planning and DPW assume worst case placement when they reviewed the proposal, in that they assume all boxes will be placed above ground and in the public right of way. This may end up not being the case.

ATT notes: actually .005% of side-walk space used by new fiber utility boxes…

A lot of comments about “undergrounding.” This is when the fiber utility box goes underground, and is not located at the street or side-walk level.

President Chiu had a crazy comment about how he used to work for a startup making servers and “servers get smaller every day,” which he extrapolated to mean that the ATT boxes should be re-engineered again. You know, smaller. Uh huh. Clearly has never seen the inside of a telco or network operations center.

DPW should review existing cabinets on a yearly basis and take into account the current state of technology. If new technology creates opportunity to reclaim public space then it should be pursued. If the cabinets are obsolete then the DPW guidelines enforce removal.

What do other jurisdictions do? Do they underground? In some circumstances, yes. What about SF?

DPW says, case by case. For instance, permits around pacbell park, around 3rd street will most certainly be underground. Muni has indicated that these sidewalks are already at capacity on game days so this is a place where undergrounding would be required.

Historical districts also merit special consideration. Keeping out of historical areas due to past opposition. Let the locals who wannabe Amish read newspapers that the pony express messengers couriered via saddlebag from the East Coast! My people.

Lisa Gibson. Planning Department. Hero. We are not aware of other companies who are going to try and do a citywide roll-out of telecom equipment requiring new utility boxes.

Jane Kim asks, “how many other utility structures currently exist in the city?”

DPW/Gibson: Do not know.

Kim: Cannot quantify? Estimate?

DPW: Thousands and thousands. One street light every 150 feet. Do the math…. Will get count and get back to you. Plus PG&E, water, other city utilities.

ATT upgrade biggest in one century. 75 million dollars. Union labor. Franchise fees to city treasuries. Simply the first step in a long permitting process, each neighborhood gets further review as the plan gets rolled out.

Undergrounding. Lot size comes into play. OSHA requirements for safe spaces.

ATT notes DPW surface mounting guidelines in SF are most detailed and restrictive in the nation.

CEQA lawyer. Same for traffic equipment. No previous CEQA review issues. Installs in 260 other California municipalities, all subject to CEQA, no EIR required for vast majority, only 4 or 5 required CEQA EIR, none of the reviews had actionable issues.

ATT indicated they were prepping for a block by block fight for approval. No doubt San Francisco Beautiful will give it to them.

All in all, I would be more impressed with San Francisco Beautiful if it would focus a bit more time on its stated rationale of “public art” and “ending blight” and less on being crazy high-speed internet obstructionists. Clearly, there is a need for a proactive solution for the utility box graffiti problem: maybe a better solution that would work for the whole city would be to have neighborhood arts organizations take over these new expanses and make something cool (subject to the environmental/temperature constraints needed for the utility box contents). Places like Southern Exposure and Mission Cultural Center in the Mission, Mollusk in the Sunset, Park Life in the Richmond, Luggage Store on Market, White Walls in the Tenderloin, etc.

Sigh. Maybe not Herb Caen’s “Board of Stupidvisors,” but certainly not a city that works.

Addendum One: SF Appeal‘s effort at reporting this. And SF Citizen‘s write up. Personal fave and rad internet video news experimental host Melissa Griffin agrees, in a necessary telecom conversation. Since fiber is a dream, indie net is concentrating on high-speed microwave links.  MonkeyBrains.net, rocking free WiFi in the Mission in 2010, also microwave links. Webpass, another option for SF residents (microwave links?). Some background info: San Francisco Government’s Fiber Study. Another proposal for a multi-vendor use plan for San Francisco’s fiber infrastructure from FTTH . PBS has a great short covering some background on this issue, see Need to Know: High Fiber. There is also a report from Harvard’s Berkman Center that attempts to provide a world-wide comparison of internet speeds, ranking the US in “broadband” and adding a “next-generation broadband” category to help clarify an often-overloaded term.

Addendum Two: the saga continues.

Fiber Internet Wins!!!

Fiber Last Century!

Fiber Near Futures

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One Response to San Francisco Board of Supervisors vs. Fiber Internet

  1. kunde says:

    Lots of excellent reading here, thank you! I had been researching on yahoo when I found your article, I’m going to add your feed to Google Reader, I look forward to additional from you.

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