Why a high-tech city like San Francisco is investing in citywide fiber

by American City & County Contributor
Aug 07, 2017

By Kevin Ebi, Smart Cities Council

Can you imagine going without internet? Many people do. Even in high-tech centers like San Francisco.

That’s one of the reasons the city is committed to building a citywide fiber network. While its past efforts have come up short, the city has now convened an advisory panel made up of business, academic and privacy experts to make sure it really happens this time. A city report is providing a new sense of urgency.

U.S. is falling behind
When it comes to internet download speeds, the U.S. is hardly the envy of the world. Of the top 20 countries studied, the U.S. ranked 19th. Korea, Japan, Sweden, the Netherlands and Switzerland are among the countries that have download speeds that nearly double (or more) those found in America.

And San Francisco’s download speeds aren’t all that great, either. At the time of the study, the U.S. average download speed was 21.2 Mbps. There are San Francisco residents who rank among the people with the city's fastest access who get barely half of that.

There’s a digital divide, too. Some 12% of residents don’t have internet access at home; another 6% have access, but it’s only dial-up. Looking at school children, 14% can’t use the internet at home.

Stakes are high
There’s no question that high-speed internet makes a difference. The Broadband Opportunity Council has called high-speed internet critical to the country’s growth and competitiveness. The Federal Communications Commission has called broadband one of the great infrastructure challenges of this century.

San Francisco says if it doesn’t step up, nothing is likely to change in the city. Less than 3% of residents have access to gigabit and the city’s research has found that existing providers aren’t motivated to offer more.

What’s next
The panel is exploring the most effective ways to bring high-speed service to all residents, an initiative that could end up costing the city $1 billion. If the network becomes reality, San Francisco would become the largest city in the country to have one and residents would enjoy service that’s about 30 times faster than the national average.

But it’s also not just about the technology. The city also wants to make sure it works for everyone. It has convened a separate panel, this time made up of community groups and social advocates, to determine the best way of serving citizens.


Kevin Ebi is Global Managing Editor of the Smart Cities Council, which works to help cities become more livable, workable and sustainable. Learn how to host a Readiness Workshop in your city.


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