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


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.


should let Google run this. The fewer things the city has to manage, the better the odds it won't all be SNAFU'ed.

Posted by Guest on May. 08, 2013 @ 1:19 pm

On the amount of money that Muni has, the service would be even worse. Public transit is always a money loser, and thus hard to operate. Broadband, electricity, etc -- those are money makers. Cities run them just fine. SF manages an airport quite well. SF manages a huge water system that delivers clean, cheap water to people all over the Bay Area.



Posted by tim on May. 08, 2013 @ 2:01 pm

we have unions controlling the process, which means rigid working practices and unsustainable pension liabilities - exactly the reasons why Muni is a disaster.

The city is so incompetent at running anything that we should have them run as little as possible. The last thing we need is a faceless bureaucracy running our internet.

Posted by Guest on May. 08, 2013 @ 2:58 pm

Wall Street is a disaster, robbing from future generations and cooking the planet just to maintain unsustainable concentrations of wealth.

Muni is just another public transit system struggling with underfunding, and it does pretty well most days considering the difficult mandate that it has.

I think those who criticize Muni most often don't actually deign to use it, it's just this mindless piece of received conservative wisdom, sorta like how the right criticizes the Post Office, which is actually pretty amazing in the speed and reliability it delivers for a 44-cent stamp.

Posted by steven on May. 08, 2013 @ 4:59 pm

We underfund our city family too much. An extra $100,000 per year for everyone makes all the difference. That's the kind of "concentrated wealth" we all need more of!

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on May. 08, 2013 @ 5:11 pm

And Muni isn't underfunded - it is massively over-funded, much of which goes to pay outrageous health and pension benefits.

Muni only collects half of it's own costs, whereas in London the farebox recovery rate is 90%. We need to urgently break up Muni, and privatize most of it.

And you are right - I don'ty use Muni, because it is filthy, unsafe, slow, unreliable, uncomfortable and the staff are irksome.

Posted by Guest on May. 08, 2013 @ 5:15 pm

everything is underfunded when you try to finance everything.

With seven Billion our, schools, buses, city pensions, life time health care after a few years of employment, hundred + commissions, free rides for kids who have parents making 82,000, etc...


Posted by So comical on May. 08, 2013 @ 10:51 pm

Thank god Google is nothing like a faceless bureauracracy.

Just a warm and approachable little Mom & Pop tech shop.

Posted by pete moss on May. 09, 2013 @ 10:41 am

easier to inlfuence than a government, because the former is rational and non-bureaucratic.

Posted by Guest on May. 09, 2013 @ 11:10 am

Clearly you've never been in a position of holding government and corporations accountable for their actions. Government finances are transparent, corporations' aren't. Elected representatives make decisions in public and are held accountable for their actions, corporate executives lie, cheat, and steal behind closed doors and are rarely held to accountable. The Mayor's Office has to return my calls and answer my questions, corporations can simply stonewall legitimate inquiries for as long as they choose and the public has no recourse. You can find Mayor Lee and President Chiu and ask them a question, good luck doing so with the CEOs of any of these big tech companies. Your beliefs about corporations are downright delusional.

Posted by steven on May. 09, 2013 @ 4:22 pm

his calls, but you claim that he does. Which is it?

As a shareholder of a corporation, I can vote not only on the officers but on their compensation and major corporate decisions. that is far more sway than I can ever hope to have over governments.

In theory governments are accoutable and corporations are not. In practice, it's the exact opposite.

Posted by Guest on May. 09, 2013 @ 4:32 pm

have been getting involved in the made up parking issue in the Mission area.

Steve is mad that the actual citizens protest their betters in city government putting meters all over the place.

Steve likes representative government until he's not getting his way. Then Government should tell the citizens to fuck off and do its thing.

Posted by Matlock on May. 09, 2013 @ 4:34 pm

no sane private industry would

The cities water system is always touched for money by bonds.

Posted by So comical on May. 08, 2013 @ 6:16 pm

Your sister publication, SF Weekly, has run a well investigated series that San Francisco is the worst run city in America. And your view is that the City actually runs well?

Come on. The mission of City government has become to employ people (the City family) and pay them benefits -- rather than provide good service to taxpayers.

The fact that you think Muni would run better if we just gave it more money strains credulity. Talk about throwing good money after bad.

Posted by The Commish on May. 09, 2013 @ 6:47 am

attached to it. Nobody in their right mind would want the city to expend it's portfolio of dud services given the bloated cost structure and rigid, unionized working practices.

Posted by Guest on May. 09, 2013 @ 7:12 am

I did a very in-depth response to the SF Weekly demonstrating that the numbers in that "investigative" story were simply wrong.


I've been watching Muni budgets for 30 years, and riding Muni all that time, and I can tell you: Put more money into Muni and it performs better. Not all government problems can be solved by throwing money at them, but in general, the quality of schools and transit are a staight-line relationship to the level of funding.


Posted by tim on May. 09, 2013 @ 9:07 am

control drive cars -- or ride in limosines -- and send their children to private schools. Not too hard to figure out.

That said, I believe that public services of this sort are *intentionally* run in failure mode so that increased budgets -- though of critical importance -- do not in and of themselves represent a complete solution.

Posted by lillipublicans on May. 09, 2013 @ 9:27 am

Did the Soviet Union stagnate intentionally?

Posted by Guest on May. 09, 2013 @ 9:53 am

enterprises that succeed and create value. Rewarding losers and punishing winners gets you nowhere in business, as anyone who ahs ever ran a business can tell you.

Muni already has too much money thrown at it. That's part of the problem - it's workers are fat, happy and overpaid.

Posted by Guest on May. 09, 2013 @ 9:53 am

Your priorities are all over the map, sure lets spend more on MUNI, you have to give up some of your other idiotic make work. When that happens you complain about that.

So at this point you are just howling in the wind "more more more more" while you have set fire and flossed your ass with the money we already gave you.

To late.

Posted by Matlock on May. 09, 2013 @ 4:40 pm

I never want to give it up for something cheaper and faster. As a matter of fact I wish we'd return to dial-up - everyone should just slow down a bit. Take time to smell the roses!

I'm glad SF gives me no choice. Our city family knows best!!

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on May. 08, 2013 @ 3:09 pm

Unsubsidized and unexclusive terms are available for all ISPs, even telcos. Stop whining about making Google to pay for electricity used by KC government. Stop threatening to take control of curbside easements away from local government. Start wising up to the fact that users should pay a little for use, but that 95% margins on monopolies granted by regulators might be excessive.

Posted by Guest on May. 08, 2013 @ 3:36 pm

Wasn't AT&T unable to install U-verse high-speed service in San Francisco thanks to all the people who lobbied against "corporate takeover of public space" in the form of the utility boxes on sidewalks?
to me it seemed like rent-seeking: homeowners who "objected" to having utility boxes on the sidewalk, when they could be getting AT&T to locate the utility boxes on their own property, in return for lease payments...
is this still the case?

Posted by Michael N. Escobar on May. 08, 2013 @ 6:26 pm

CA 'environmental' law favors NIMBYs. Under the guise of protecting bugs and bunnies, the law empowers grannies to stop progress for the rest of their lives. That would be OK if the law were named Stop the World until Grannie rejoins Grandpa, but no, they had to give it a name unrelated to its intended use. Kind of like naming the gut the authority of local government law Proposition 13.

Posted by Guest on May. 08, 2013 @ 10:34 pm

Public spirited/civic minded entrepreneurs might (for a few years) subsidize a needed service for those few who can afford to pay. Horror, of horrors.

Posted by Guest on May. 09, 2013 @ 10:00 am

An immediate question is why is SFMTA allowing ATT to install wireless equipment on their poles along Market Street. This will allow them to "offload" their expense cell phone calls to wifi hotspots on Market Street. Were Verizon or Sprint asked if they wanted the same special deal?


Posted by Guest on May. 09, 2013 @ 4:37 pm

One of San Francisco supervisor David Chiu's leadership failures is his inability to see the City's vertical shift downward upon carte blanche contract sign-offs for point-and-click-capitalism oligarchs Twitter and others. These public-private partnerships must be weighted in favor of the city and county of San Francisco—not to capitalism, in particular, neoliberal capitalism, whom the electorate has a non-binding interest only, if they can pay-to-play. David Chiu should resolve to apply more human agency and structure to public-private projects.

Posted by Awayneramsey on May. 15, 2013 @ 12:34 pm

And Lee won the mayorship on a pro-jobs, pro-growth, pro-investment platform.

Posted by Guest on May. 15, 2013 @ 12:49 pm

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.