Put in practical terms, Sniezko said, the difference between a connection speed of eight megabits and a gigabit amounts to downloading a full-length feature film in 90 minutes, versus several seconds. And since fiber also can deliver faster upload speeds, it opens the door to new possibilities. "It lets individuals potentially come up with really innovative and creative ideas," Sniezko said. "If you wanted to have your own streaming TV channel from your house, you could. Or anything, really."
Fiber already exists under San Francisco city streets — but most places lack the direct connections to homes or businesses, so the capacity is not realized. The city's Department of Technology and Information Services (DTIS) convened a study in 2007 for developing the infrastructure to create a full-fiber network, deeming fiber "the holy grail of communications networking: unlimited capacity, long life, and global reach."
Since then, progress has been slow. AT&T's new system would also be based on fiber, but information would still travel to homes or offices over copper phone lines, resulting in slower speeds than a direct connection could supply.
On a recent afternoon, MonkeyBrains cofounder Alex Menendez scrambled up a ladder leading from his small Potrero Hill office space to show off some rooftop antennas and laser devices. There was a clear view from the flat, sunny roof to the office building the laser was pointed at, many blocks away. Secured to a hand-built metal stand, the gadgets were part of the company's high-speed Internet network, which counts KQED among its roughly 1,000 subscribers.
Menendez was explaining how his small company is able to use these microwave devices in combination with fiber-optic cables to provide high-speed Internet by leapfrogging from node to node throughout San Francisco.
Menendez said he didn't feel strongly one way or another about AT&T's metal boxes. "But it raises a more interesting issue: what's the 50-year-down-the-line solution? There's much better technology out there. It could be super-affordable, with a wide-open, massive amount of bandwidth."
But, he added, it won't happen without the support of local government.
The City and County of San Francisco owns an underground fiber-optic network spanning more than 110 miles, used mostly for municipal and emergency purposes. AT&T has its own fiber — and with a history going back more than a century in San Francisco, it also has a lock on the market.
AT&T owns underground cables, copper phone lines, and rights-of-way, making it necessary for small market players to interface with the corporation and pay fees. This makes it difficult for local ISPs to compete on any meaningful scale. "They have the right to trench the street," Menendez explained. "We don't."
Mendendez and others are looking at micro-trenching as a possible way around this. Last summer, Google hosted an event at its Mountain View headquarters called the Micro-trenching Olympics ("A very Google-y thing to do," according to a company representative speaking in a YouTube video) to find out which contractor could best slice a one-inch wide, nine-inch deep trench in a parking lot and install fiber-optic cable inside. The idea behind micro-trenching is that it's fast and minimally disruptive — and best of all, it doesn't interfere with existing infrastructure, so there's no need to pay a fee to AT&T, or any other company.
Some in the tech community are hoping it will signify a new and efficient way to link fiber-optic cable directly to homes and businesses, ultimately resulting in the kind of Internet speed that would let you download a movie in less than ten seconds. With micro-trenching, there would be no need for utility boxes.