Reverse privatization
Ammiano wants the city to get into the broadband business

By Camille T. Taiara

At a time when public services are being privatized and corporations are consolidating their control over every aspect of digital communications technology, Sup. Tom Ammiano has an idea that's downright revolutionary. He wants San Francisco to create its own public broadband network.

If he succeeds, the city could go into the business of providing Internet, cable TV, telephone, and high-speed data-transfer services to its residents, in the process opening up access to independent media producers and Internet service providers that are being squeezed out by the big telecom companies. And it could bulldoze the ubiquitous "digital divide" by providing services to residents and small businesses at a fraction of current costs – even making it free for certain low-income families and cash-strapped nonprofits if it so chose.

Information policy would be placed in the hands of the community rather than being dictated by undemocratic "market forces." Rates would go down. Options would increase. And it could generate hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe even millions, for the city to provide better social services.

Right now, SBC and Comcast, San Francisco's main telephone and cable service providers, enjoy a duopoly over such services in the city. That means the two companies can charge pretty much what they like, are far less accountable to the local community than they'd be if they faced real competition in town, and can exert absolute control over what they will – or won't – carry over their distribution networks.

A municipal broadband infrastructure "is the only way to break the duopoly's blockade," California Public Utilities Commission's Loretta Lynch told onlookers during a Sept. 29 press conference on the steps of City Hall.

Ammiano proposes to take advantage of the road excavations that will be required to upgrade the city's sewer system over the next five years to simultaneously lay a fiber-optic cable network. SFPUC commissioner and Common Assets executive director Adam Werbach, Craigslist founder Craig Newark, and members of the Utility Reform Network, Media Alliance, Access S.F., and other groups joined Lynch in expressing their support of Ammiano's proposal.

First, Ammiano is pushing a resolution urging relevant city agencies – the Department of Telecommunications and Information Services, the city's PUC, the Department of Public Works, and the Mayor's Office of Public Finance – to conduct a feasibility study. He'd already set aside $300,000 in last year's PUC budget to fund it. The Board of Supervisors' Finance Committee unanimously approved the resolution later that afternoon.

Advocates say it's an ingenious proposal, since street excavation accounts for the lion's share of costs involved in such a project. And the potential benefits are immense.

High-speed Internet user rates could drop from $50 to $5 a month, Werbach said. Others pointed out that the city could provide integrated, state-of-the-art information technology to its various departments – including police and fire – as well as to schools, hospitals, community centers, and other civic institutions. And it could help finance independent, locally produced media.

The Ammiano proposal may seem unusual in an era when government gets demonized and the free market rules, but it's not unprecedented for cities to offer information services to their citizens.

The city of San Bruno has been a cable TV provider for 33 years. It now serves more than 15,000 subscribers and generates enough money to account for 15 percent of its General Fund revenues – one-third of which comes from lease fees charged to Comcast.

"Even with 10 percent, we'd have a viable business," Ammiano aide Tomás Lee told the Bay Guardian – noting that with a population at least 15 times larger than San Bruno's, the potential returns in San Francisco could really make a difference.

The full Board of Supervisors was considering Ammiano's proposal as we went to press Oct. 5. If the resolution passes, the PUC must agree to release the $300,000 needed to implement the feasibility study, and the Budget Committee must grant its approval before the DTIS can start looking for the right contractor to conduct the research.

Last week's hearing was just "a tentative step," Ammiano told the crowd. Now he must ensure the will is there to implement the idea – including support for refunding the DTIS, which would have to implement the project but absorbed deep budget cuts this year.

Yet with some financing and collective imagination, San Francisco could seize control of its digital future – and make sure it serves the public's interest, not the corporate bottom line.

E-mail Camille T. Taiara