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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Net Neutrality: How San Francisco Could Create Its Own "Open Internet" Island

Posted By on Wed, Nov 12, 2014 at 7:09 AM

click to enlarge Obama advocating for a free and open Internet.
  • Obama advocating for a free and open Internet.
President Obama created a seismic wave in the blogosphere after taking a bullish stance on net neutrality Monday, urging the FCC to adopt a strict set of rules for cable service providers. Companies shouldn't be allowed to wantonly block off websites, Obama argued, and they shouldn't be allowed to charge fees for priority access (what's known in the business as "an Internet fast lane"). 

It seemed like a huge blow to the four major carriers that currently control our Internet portals (Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and Charter Communications), and a victory for consumers. Finally, the FCC had political cover to serve the public interest.

But there's still no telling which way the commission might rule. Shortly after Obama issued his two-minute statement championing an open and free Internet, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler replied with a noncommittal statement of his own, in which he stressed that his agency doesn't operate at the president's behest. (That said, he promised to take Obama's opinion into consideration, along with thousands of other public comments.)

So, there's a glimmering possibility that the agency might not rule in favor of an open Internet. And even if it does side with Obama, consumers are still left with the fundamental problem of a small group of companies controlling a critical resource. 

"We have to realize that net neutrality is not a silver bullet, when it comes to giving consumers freedom," Electronic Frontier Foundation activist April Glaser says.

But San Francisco might have a solution of its own. As the Weekly reported back 2011, San Francisco has more than 110 miles of so-called "dark fiber" optic cables running, unused, underneath the city. In 2011, the city's Department of Technology sought approval to lease it for as much as $1.8 million annually; but according to Glaser, it's languishing.

She believes the city's vast skein of dark fiber could be deployed for an  "an incredibly robust" municipal network, which could liberate residents from Comcast and AT&T.

Glaser doesn't see the municipal network as an outright replacement for the dominant ISP providers, but rather, as another competitor — one that Internet users could turn to when the big guys behave badly. Given the infrastructure, a community broadband network might even provide better service than some ISPs, she argues.

Which means that no matter which way the FCC rules, San Francisco has the potential to be its own self-sustaining island of Internet connectivity. Maybe President Obama can spur us to action.

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About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.

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