Will SF's new broadband infrastructure be controlled by the city or Google?

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Board President David Chiu is calling for San Francisco to add to its broadband fiber network every time a contractor or utility tears up a street, joining other cities in expanding high-speed Internet capacity. But will this new network be a municipal utility or corporate-controlled? An upcoming hearing he has called for could begin to answer that question.

“In the 21st century, cities need access to affordable, high-quality broadband to compete economically, just as access to water, electricity, roads or railways was critical in the 20th century,” Chiu said in a public statement. “We see other cities like Austin, Kansas City and Santa Clara making enormous strides.  My proposal will ensure that San Francisco does better in this area.”

But Austin and Kansas City have opted to take the easy path and let Google install and control the system, which raises a variety of questions and problems that are highlighted “Kansas City Gives it up for Google,” in the current issue of Harper’s Magazine, which looked at how KC is letting corporate interests trump the public interest.

“According to its contract, Kansas City must give Google access to its underground conduits, fiber, poles, rack space, nodes, buildings, facilities, and available land. It cannot charge the company for ‘access to or use of any city facilities . . . nor will it impose any permit and inspection fees.’ And what does the city get in return? It has no say in the pricing of Google’s services, nor can it ensure that Google will deliver fiber-optic service to all of the city’s residents. Google’s offices, meeting spaces, and showroom are provided free of charge, and the city pays the company’s electric bill. The mayor, moreover, is barred from commenting on Google’s activities without the express permission of Google,” the magazine writes.

Chiu is building his proposal from a report that then-Sup. Tom Ammiano commissioned years ago, calling for the city to build a network of fiber as it opens up the streets. Now, Chiu is trying to implement that idea with legislation and an upcoming hearing on the issue, but right now he’s agnostic on whether that network is owned by San Francisco or a corporation that it might contract with.

“My legislation doesn’t dictate who lays the fiber, it just ensures that it happens,” Chiu told the Guardian, although he did add that he’s “more intrigued that it could be the public sector.”   

The Harpers article discusses how public utilities have succeeded in delivering reliable, cost-effective services to millions of Americans since the 1930s when FDR began to use government to deliver electricity to rural areas that lacked it, drawing parallels to the 100 million Americans now who lack access to high-speed Internet service. But the federal government seems to be encouraging corporations to do the work this time, and they’re more than happy to oblige.

“Why does Google feel so at home in Kansas City—rather than in, say, California, where the company is based? Why not build their first citywide fiber-optic network in a nearby community? According to Google vice president Milo Medin, the company has preferred to steer clear of such pesky statutes as the California Environmental Quality Act. ‘Many fine California city proposals . . . were ultimately passed over in part because of the regulatory complexity here,’ Medin told a congressional committee in 2011. ‘In fact, part of the reason we selected Kansas City for the Google Fiber project was [that] the city’s leadership and utility moved with efficiency and creativity in working with us to craft a real partnership,’” the article says.

Yet with Google in charge, the company is only guaranteeing access to neighborhoods where a minimum number of residents pre-register and pay for premium service, redlining out many African-American neighborhoods and forcing community members to go door-to-door essentially selling Google’s services.

And in the end, the corporation will make gains even if it loses money on the project, as the article concludes: “So why would an Internet-search company want to spend a fortune to install fiber-optic cable in Kansas City, Missouri, and neighboring Kansas City, Kansas? Freedom from regulatory headaches is one part of the equation: if such networks are the wave of the future, the time to jump in is now, before legislative oversight can ruin the party. But another explanation might be the treasure trove of user-behavior information that such a network represents. Data of this kind is so prized that a company like Google can afford to give away other services for free, as long as this beneficence opens up new markets. In Kansas City, low-income subscribers to the company’s slower, ‘free’ Internet option will be giving Google details about each URL they visit, even if their accounts remain anonymous. And customers who plunk down $120 a month for the ‘Full Google Experience’ will have their television-viewing habits individually tracked by Google’s data-mining elves. Is this a reasonable bargain? For Kansas City, it’s too late to ask. But history—and the success of municipally owned fiber-optic projects throughout the country—strongly suggest that we should look this gift horse in the mouth.”

Food for thought as San Francisco contemplates whether it wants to build public infrastructure or simply facilitate more corporate infrastructure.