Boxed out

Fiber-optic proponents think beyond AT&T's proposed network upgrades

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SF needs to plan its communications infrastructure beyond the hundreds of unsightly metal boxes that AT&T wants to install.
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY BEN HOPFER

rebeccab@sfbg.com

The Board of Supervisors is gearing up to revisit whether telecommunications giant AT&T should be permitted to install 726 new metal boxes on city sidewalks for a communications network upgrade, without completing an environmental impact review.

At an April 26 meeting, the board spent several tedious hours listening to concerns such as whether the boxes would attract graffiti or clutter the sidewalks, and debated the finer points of whether the project could legally be considered exempt, ultimately resolving to take up the issue again May 24.

Meanwhile, a small cadre of tech-savvy San Franciscans has seized on this debate as an opportunity to drum up enthusiasm for an alternate vision of a citywide communications future, one with faster connection speeds that wouldn't necessarily be controlled by the AT&T and Comcast duopoly.

At the meeting, AT&T California President Ken McNeely, dressed in a sharp suit, trumpeted the company's proposed upgrade, part of a new system called U-verse. "This is the largest single upgrade to the San Francisco local phone network in more than a century," he said. "Our network will provide the next-generation IP technologies that San Francisco needs to provide if it wants to continue to attract the best and brightest in the region."

Yet Rudy Rucker, bearded and clad in a camouflage T-shirt, sounded a different note. "The U.S. is No. 30 in the world in Internet speed," he said. "The boxes are not the way to go. What we need to do is rework the entire infrastructure of how we do communications in the city. We're relying on copper lines. We need to pull all those out, recycle the copper, and put in fiber-optic cable." Rucker is a cofounder of MonkeyBrains, an independent Internet service provider (ISP) based in San Francisco.

AT&T's U-verse upgrade would enable it to offer connection speeds three times faster than current service — but not nearly as fast as what fiber proponents envision. Several members of the tech industry interviewed by the Guardian cautioned that another AT&T upgrade might be necessary after less than a decade to keep pace with technological advancement. At that point, it's anyone's guess whether those boxes would continue to be useful. AT&T did not respond to a query from the Guardian.

SPEED FREAKS

When it comes to Internet speeds, the United States trails Asia and some European countries. "We've fallen from first place," said Ashwin Navin, who founded several tech startups including a file-sharing company called BitTorrent. "It's really put our software and technology industry at a disadvantage."

According to a website that compares connection speeds using data compilation, California ranks 23rd in the nation, while San Francisco doesn't even clear the top 30 cities nationwide, Navin noted.

Yet much faster connection speeds are possible — even commonplace — in countries such as Japan and Singapore. "Right now, the average download speed in San Francisco is something around eight megabits," explained Dana Sniezko, who's emerged as a tech activist since creating a website called SF Fiber, which calls for a neutral, open, affordable community fiber network. "What U-verse is going to offer is about three times that. Something like fiber can offer service that's 1,000 megabits [called a gigabit], or even much larger than that. Fiber allows you to really have a huge capacity for the future."

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