News


Palo Alto mulls new approach on fiber network

City Council to consider 'Fiber to the Node' model for expanding high-speed internet access

For nearly two decades, Palo Alto's plan to dramatically expand its "dark fiber" ring and bring high-speed internet to every household has been stuck in legislative limbo, with every City Council after another voicing support for the new system while stopping short of actually moving it forward.

Like its predecessors, the current council unanimously supports the ambitious goals of what is known as Fiber to the Premise. But faced with economic uncertainties, questionable demand and fierce competition from the private sector, officials are now considering a new approach: Instead of scaling up the fiber services, they are scaling down their ambitions.

Unlike prior efforts, the new plan, which the council plans to consider on Monday, does not seek to extend the existing fiber ring to every premise. Instead, it envisions a "Fiber to the Node" network that would bring ultra-high-speed broadband connections to neighborhood access points known as "nodes." Individual households would then have the option of hooking up to their local node.

The new vision is a departure from the type of universal-access approach that officials had favored in the past and that has been the subjects of numerous studies by Utilities staff and consultants. Ultimately, cost proved to be the biggest barrier. In 2015, the city completed a Fiber to the Premise master plan that pegged the cost of constructing a citywide network about $78 million. The plan also estimated that it would cost about $8 million annually to operate and maintain the system.

Because the new approach does not involve the "last mile" connection between the node and the household, it is both less costly and less risky, with an estimated price tag of $12 million to $15 million. And even though it won't bring 1 gigabit-per-second access directly into the household, it will release more fiber into the community and create opportunities for various "smart grid" and "smart city" programs. The expanded network will also function as a platform for wireless communication for the city's public-safety responders and utility workers.

"FTTN has the potential to be a foundational technology that may allow the City to support smart grid applications such as communicating with smart meters, utility supply and demand applications, and gas and water leakage detection," the new report from the Information Technology Department states. "These applications are available and currently being deployed by other municipal and investor-owned utilities."

And while the network is a departure from the earlier fiber dream, it would also effectively keep that dream alive. Once in place, the expanded network would create an opportunity for neighborhoods or private providers to fund the last mile, which is typically the most risky and expensive component of the expansion.

In May, the council's Policy and Services Committee backed staff's new approach toward fiber, voting 3-0 (with Liz Kniss absent) to move ahead with a business plan for a potential Fiber-to-the-Node network. The city's Utilities Advisory Commission had similarly supported the proposed model.

In making the case for the fiber pivot, the city's Chief Information Officer Jonathan Reichental pointed to the growing role of wireless communication in today's world, with various telecom giants developing fifth-generation (5G) wireless systems with speeds that will be roughly 400 times faster than today's broadband. The new fiber network would create new wireless opportunities for the city. It could also serve as a stepping stone to a full fiber-to-the-premise system, should the city opt to pursue it in the future.

In the new report, Reichental is recommending that the city develop a business case for the new network and to engage an engineering consultant to design a citywide network.

"We definitely want to explore different business cases before we make a financial commitment to it," Reichental said at the May meeting. "That's what we're proposing."

Both the Utilities Advisory Commission and the council committee had plenty of questions about how the new system would work, including the number of potential customers and the types of applications it could engender. Both bodies, however, agreed that the new approach merits further exploration and greater clarity.

Councilman Tom DuBois called the proposal "interesting" because it considers how fiber and wireless systems work together. But like others, he said it's important that the city set measurable goals for the new project.

"I think we need to be really clear on what our goals are and what we're trying to accomplish," DuBois said.

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Comments

30 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of South of Midtown
on Aug 20, 2017 at 11:26 am

How many tens of thousands of dollars will it cost homeowners to hook up these city nodes that are a mile away? If this is only affordable to a small minority of city residents, then why is any taxpayer money involved at all? I say let private industry take over, perhaps with city regulation to keep them honest.


12 people like this
Posted by PatrickD
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 20, 2017 at 11:59 am

I'm disappointed that the city has backed away from FTTH, but honestly, after years of waffling on this issue, any movement would be welcome. It's amazing that we live in the middle of the Silicon Valley and have such shockingly bad, overpriced, internet service. I would love to know more about the "fierce competition from the private sector" that council mentioned.


17 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of South of Midtown
on Aug 20, 2017 at 2:11 pm

@PatrickD - I'm sure what they mean is that even though existing commercial systems mostly suck, any system the city could come up with would suck even more, especially regarding residential pricing.


2 people like this
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 20, 2017 at 2:31 pm

john_alderman is a registered user.

@PatrickD - "fierce competition from the private sector"

There is no competition for high end, high speed internet service. But, there is fierce competition for medium to low end internet, especially when you factor in wireless. Unfortunately, that undermines the ability to roll out high speed, high priced fiber service because most people will be happy with what they have. Probably not enough power users who want and will pay for gigabit fiber to justify the build out.


6 people like this
Posted by DTN Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 20, 2017 at 3:03 pm

DTN Paul is a registered user.

Should city council really spend its time on this? It feels like the kind of thing a city spends time and money on when it doesn't huge problems on basic things like housing, pension obligations, transit... Also, does this city really need a CIO?


9 people like this
Posted by David Rosenthal
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 20, 2017 at 3:25 pm

As a participant in the original FTTH trial I can testify that the best feature was not the performance compared to commercial ISPs, but the customer service the Utilities provided compared to the alternatives.

The issue of what technology to use is a distraction from the real policy issue, which is whether the physical infrastructure connecting customers to the net is public or private. So long as your link to the net is owned by an oligopolistic company, you will have terrible customer service and extortionate pricing. Whether the company-owned service rides upstream of that link on public or private infrastructure is invisible to you.

The only way to ensure a competitive ISP market is for the link to your home to be owned by the city, and for competing providers to purchase access to it from the city on non-discriminatory terms.


11 people like this
Posted by Me 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 20, 2017 at 3:47 pm

$8M a year? Isn't that just the print budget for all the wasteful CPAU inserts?

David Rosenthal is right, if we really want competition, we need to have local loop unbundling with ISPs competing over shared infrastructure. Unfortunately, with no last mile, we won't get that, so I'm not sure where this is going.


6 people like this
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 20, 2017 at 4:27 pm

john_alderman is a registered user.

@David Rosenthal - You can't divorce the issue from the technology. It ends up being a huge boondoggle if the city builds an expensive physical fiber network but the competition ends up being wireless.


12 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 20, 2017 at 5:41 pm

"As a participant in the original FTTH trial I can testify that the best feature was not the performance compared to commercial ISPs, but the customer service the Utilities provided compared to the alternatives."

Pampered prototypes always work well. Technology is not the issue here, using taxpayer money wisely is the issue.

This latest plan amounts to: "Let's spend a bunch of money on a half-donkeyed lashup and see what happens."


2 people like this
Posted by Midtown
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 21, 2017 at 12:20 pm

I can only imagine rats nests of wires strung all over the neighborhoods to the nodes. Could probably use trees to save on money.


6 people like this
Posted by Judith
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 21, 2017 at 12:33 pm

Please! "Premise" is NOT the singular of "premises". A premise is an assumption, "the premises" is the location.


2 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Aug 21, 2017 at 12:47 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"The only way to ensure a competitive ISP market is for the link to your home to be owned by the city, and for competing providers to purchase access to it from the city on non-discriminatory terms."


There is actually an even better alternative -

Web Link


12 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 21, 2017 at 1:40 pm

Given the city's track record, I suspect this is just another gambit to channel our money into the General Fund like they currently do with our utilities.

Instead of asking us, the residents, to spend more money on this, how about demanding that the huge companies that are creating tens of thousand new jobs a year that are severely taxing our infrastructure pay to provide this as a FREE service. That would be a nice switch from asking us, the residents, to pay the commuters.

For what it's worth, Mountain View is going to resurrect a per employee head tax; Vice Mayor Lenny Siegel says he's going to try to recruit Palo ALto to do the same so it will be interesting to watch the Council candidates respond before the next election.

Will the PA city council continue to steadfastly refuse to make developers and businesses pay their fair share, preferring to pass all the costs on to us, the residents, in the form of parking permits, parking meters and all the wasted time we sit in traffic?? Tune in for the next exciting election.


4 people like this
Posted by bignose
a resident of University South
on Aug 21, 2017 at 2:14 pm

We just installed a FTTH network in Sea Ranch, a community on the coast and close to nothing. We also chose a hub spoke design that the consumer pays to connect to but we run fiber from the hubs to the homes so it is indeed FTTH. The per home connection expense was small since we did run the ducts around each street with access points near each home. I'm sort of amazed that a small community (16.8 sq miles, < 2000 homes) can manage this but Palo Alto can't. Since SR has much lower population density than PA, it should cost them much more per household to maintain but it is making money at $70/month. They are currently limiting households to 50Mb/sec not because of the infrastructure but because of the limited bandwidth in/out of SR. Before they started limiting, we were getting 250Mb in/out each house so the infrastructure could do at least that.


Like this comment
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 21, 2017 at 2:23 pm

john_alderman is a registered user.

@Peter Carpenter - "There is actually an even better alternative"

How many homes connected so far?


2 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Aug 21, 2017 at 3:07 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Atherton Fiber/Paxio is currently doing an onsite survey of every home in Atherton and then will start installing the fiber network.

"Atherton Fiber will run at least one fiber to the easement in front of every home in Atherton. This fiber may be leased by any ISP to offer internet access, video or phone to that home. The connection from the easment to the house will for for the homeowner's account.

In addition, we will offer the option for homeowners to purchase an irrevocable right-of-use (IRU) for either two or four dedicated fibers. These will be “home-runs”, i.e. each fiber will be a direct, unshared optical connection from the home to the Atherton Fiber central office."


Like this comment
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 21, 2017 at 3:51 pm

" ... we will offer the option for homeowners to purchase an irrevocable right-of-use (IRU) for either two or four dedicated fibers. These will be “home-runs”, i.e. each fiber will be a direct, unshared optical connection from the home to the Atherton Fiber central office."

So every house will initially have four fibers installed nonstop to its easement from the Central Office?


Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Aug 21, 2017 at 3:56 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Web Link


Like this comment
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 21, 2017 at 4:01 pm

john_alderman is a registered user.

@Peter Carpenter - has there been any fiber put in the ground yet?


Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Aug 21, 2017 at 5:32 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Atherton Fiber powered by OpenFiber
Phillip Clark, CEO
(408) 693-8630
Email: pclark@openfiber.net

Atherton Fiber installation managed by PAXIO
Ryan Delong, Project Manager
(510) 458-5982
Email: rdelong@paxio.com


2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 21, 2017 at 5:47 pm

"Atherton Fiber will run at least one fiber to the easement in front of every home in Atherton."

That athertonfiber.com website says very little of substance. Almost baby talk. Prof Harold Hill would approve.

Any idea what endpoint speeds they're offering, and what their backhaul capacity will be? Find out before you buy. Could be just a glitzy DSL-speed lashup.


Like this comment
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 21, 2017 at 7:03 pm

john_alderman is a registered user.

@Peter - you are here advocating something like Atherton Fiber as "an even better alternative", even though they have been working on it since 2014, no homes are hooked up, and looks like no fiber has been deployed.

Maybe it will work out for Atherton, but it is a little premature to be patting yourself on the back. Or are you suggesting it is a good alternative because it is good way to do nothing?


2 people like this
Posted by Craig
a resident of Atherton
on Aug 21, 2017 at 10:48 pm

@john, @curmudgeon,

No fiber in the ground yet. Right now, Atherton Fiber is doing pre-construction work to survey how fiber will be run into each home. The field tech who came by my house says they will start laying fiber in the Fall.

The work is being done privately, rather than by the town officially. This has a few advantages. The guy behind Atherton Fiber is fronting the money. The town just needs to issue Atherton Fiber permits. No town money means no need to for endless public debate about where and how Atherton would get the money. Lots of municipal projects die this way. Private labor can be contracted much more cheaply than by a municipality.


Like this comment
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 22, 2017 at 3:50 pm

@Craig

Thanks for the clarification. Two questions, if you don't mind:

What is the Atherton government's financial/liability exposure in this enterprise?

Who owns the strung fiber if OpenFiber or its successor(s) goes poof?


Like this comment
Posted by Craig
a resident of Atherton
on Aug 22, 2017 at 10:05 pm

@Curmudgeon

I would imagine Atherton Fiber is like any other utility company. If the utility company screws up, then it must pay. The city doesn't have any liability.

If Atherton Fiber goes bankrupt, the highest bidder will likely take ownership of the assets. It's a pretty valuable asset once the fiber is in the ground.


Like this comment
Posted by Palo Alto Resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 14, 2017 at 1:53 pm

Can I suggest a combination of wireless and FFTN?
Just have private wireless companies provide fastest wireless services at each node.
Requires lot less digging or overhang wires in neighborhoods


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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