For years, San Francisco has had a robust fiber optic infrastructure laying dormant underneath its streets. Google announced Wednesday that it's going to start lighting some of those cables up. Welcome to the future of broadband in major cities.
Most people don't know that many cities throughout the United States are already wired with "dark fiber": infrastructure that, for a variety of reasons, is never used to provide gigabit connections to actual residents. This fiber is often laid by companies you rarely hear about, like Zayo and Level 3, which lay fiber infrastructure in hopes the city, a provider like Google, or a corporate customer (like an office building) will eventually make use of it.
This can either be a really difficult process or an easy one, depending on local ordinances. San Francisco has made the laying of fiber infrastructure a priority since the early 2000s, and it appears to be paying off for its residents now.
"Google Fiber doesn't go anywhere where they're not going to have a strong partner and facilitator in the city," Joanne Hovis, who worked on a fiber feasibility study for the city of San Francisco in the late 2000s, told me. "There's been an incredibly robust long term plan on the part of the city to encourage big bandwidth infrastructure that's meaningful. Today's announcement is a testament to the fact the city had some smooth processes around permitting and the other things necessary to complete the unbelievably complex task of building fiber in an urban area."
This existing infrastructure is what has made it easy for Google Fiber to move in. The company now only has to build the "last mile" connections that will go to apartment complexes and condos in the city. At least initially, Fiber won't be available in individual rowhouses or single family homes, which typically cost more to connect on a per-account basis (the company gets more bang for its buck wiring an entire apartment complex or condo).
"Google is setting a precedent and demonstrating its willingness to offer its services over a network it doesn't own," Hovis said. "That's something we really haven't seen in the broadband era. You don't have to build a new network, you can leverage what's already there and different providers can use different bundles in fiber strands to compete with each other."
"It remains to be seen whether private companies will overtake municipal efforts to cover San Francisco in fiber internet access to the home"
Google's move to San Francisco is at least as interesting as its announcement earlier this week that it'll be moving to Huntsville, Alabama, and both represent a new model for broadband access in the United States and prove there are many models that might work moving forward.
In Huntsville, Google will lease a government-owned dark fiber network to offer internet connections. It's telling that the company isn't doing the same in San Francisco. Besides encouraging investment from private companies, San Francisco has invested heavily in its own fiber network that connects municipal buildings, schools, and housing projects. According to the San Francisco city government, there are at least 140 miles of "dark fiber" running underneath the city's streets, and more than 256 municipal buildings have been connected.
A "dig once" ordinance passed in 2014 requires the city to lay its own fiber any time a road is dug up, whether its for a street repair, water main break, or power line renovations.
"The [since enacted] Dig Once legislation indicates a dedication to improving fiber access and lighting up the city's dark fiber," Susan Crawford of Harvard's Berkman Center wrote in 2014. "It remains to be seen whether private companies will overtake municipal efforts to cover San Francisco in fiber internet access to the home."
San Francisco does have a fiber leasing program, but I've been told that the city's prices are not competitive. In 2014, I spoke with Alex Menendez, CEO of MonkeyBrains, a small ISP in San Francisco. He told me that the city of San Francisco never wanted to run fiber to individual apartment complexes itself, but that the city was interested in having a private company do it. MonkeyBrains wasn't able to reach an agreement that would have allowed them to offer fiber internet for less than $200 per month.
"They don't run a business and can't figure out how to sell it, how to price it," Menendez told me. "We would love to do fiber to the home, but it doesn't make sense for us to use the city's at the current pricing."
Google obviously found it more prudent to light up privately owned dark fiber infrastructure. It'll be interesting to see whether Google or another company ever tries to make use of publicly owned fiber in San Francisco, and perhaps Google's initial inroads in Fiber will eventually lead it toward using city-owned fiber.
Between the Huntsville announcement and the San Francisco ones, it's clear that Google and other smaller ISP startups are looking to make use of existing fiber: Why bother laying your own infrastructure if you don't have to? To cities, the message is clear: If you (or some other company) build it, the providers will come, eventually.