The medium of choice for wired telecommunications networks is fiber optics. Fiber can support much higher bandwidths than copper-based alternatives, and it's no more expensive to deploy. It's inherently more reliable. It's the future. But the telecom incumbents are reluctant to abandon their copper-based networks as long as customers are willing to put up with them.
Fiber to the premises networks, which use fiber-optic cables to provide internet access directly to users of an internet service provider, extend all of the virtues of fiber to homes and businesses. A municipal network would offer not only superior bandwidth at reasonable prices but also would guarantee net neutrality and privacy, which are not guaranteed by the private sector.
More than two decades ago, Palo Alto was one of the very first communities to start thinking about creating a citywide municipal communications network based on fiber optics. In 1996 as a first step, the city council decided to deploy a "dark" fiber network — just fiber-optic cable connected to nodes, or common network boxes. With this system, customers lease unused "dark" fiber strands within the cable and then "light" the fiber strands with their own electronics.
The city's original $2-million investment was paid back long ago, and by now the network has amassed about $26 million, which is sitting in a fiber fund ready to be spent on next steps.
I moved back to Palo Alto in 1998, in part because the buzz that the city was thinking about taking the next step: deploying a citywide municipal fiber to the premises network. A community group of advocates held informational meetings and spoke at meetings of the City Council and the Utilities Advisory Commission. In 2001, the city deployed a trial network to 67 homes to see whether staff could make it work (they could) and whether people would like it (they did).
From 2002 to 2004, the city commissioned a series of studies by consultants that found that a citywide municipal network was feasible, and there was enough interest in the community to make it financially viable. But then the project fell apart when the city couldn't figure out the details of doing the financing.
Next, from 2005 to 2009, the city tried (unsuccessfully) to form a public-private partnership to create a fiber to the premises network. Unfortunately, that involved years of closed-door negotiations between the city and the prospective private partner, during which time advocates had no role to play, so community advocacy sort of dispersed.
In 2010, the city tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade Google to deploy its first fiber to the premises network here. In 2011, the city tried (unsuccessfully) to get a stimulus grant for the network. In 2012, the city looked into user-financed network, in which customers pay a substantial connect fee (of, say, $3,000), but the Utilities Advisory Commission, in a 4-3 vote, thought it was a bad idea, and staff never even asked what council thought.
In both 2013 and 2014, council voted to make "Technology and the Connected City" (a term that included both fiber and wireless) one of the city's top three priorities. But in 2014, when Google announced that it was considering deploying fiber to the premises here, most of the city's attention shifted to that possibility. Google then "paused" (gave up).
In 2017, staff proposed, and council approved looking into, a much tinier next step — just connecting dark fiber to more nodes (at a cost of $15 million) with no real plan or commitment for connecting nodes to premises.
Next month, staff will tell council that all its work on this next tiny step was in pursuit of the wrong idea, so it wants permission to start over with another version of the system. I think it would be much better for the city to do an engineering design of the citywide fiber to the premises network we want, in sufficient detail to make realistic cost estimates, and then commit to building out the network, in phases if necessary.
How could Palo Alto have gone from being so visionary in 1996 to being so clueless in 2019?
One reason, I believe, is that the city went out of its way to take to heart the failure of a municipal telecom network in Alameda. But Alameda made mistakes we can avoid. Its network was hybrid fiber co-ax (an inferior technology), not fiber to the premises. And it bet on a private-public partnership, but then the partner flaked.
Meanwhile, there are now 213 municipal fiber to the premises networks in the U.S. Many offer 1-Gbps symmetric residential internet service. Prices vary, but in Longmont, Colorado, it costs $49.95 per month (to those who signed up as soon as it was available). It's not rocket science. We can do this.
I have launched a website, munifiberpaloalto.org, hoping to inspire the Palo Alto community to let the council know that a citywide municipal fiber to the premises network is important to them, and that the council should figure out a way to make it happen. On the website, I'm hoping to post a list of people who support citywide municipal fiber to the premises. If you'd like to be on the list (and your home or business is in Palo Alto), please let me know.
Councilman Greg Tanaka has launched a petition on Change.org ("Bring fiber optic access to Palo Alto!") for the same reason. The petition wants to "Hold the people who are in charge of this to be accountable for their actions and deadlines." I think the council should hold staff accountable, and the public should hold the council accountable.
Jeff Hoel, a retired electronics engineer, has been advocating municipal FTTP since 2002; he can be reached at email@example.com.