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.