Will citizens pay for gigabit Internet? 

click to enlarge Monkeybrains co-founder Rudy Rucker, left, and technician Will Guan scout out where to put an antenna for their Internet network. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/the s.f. examiner
  • Monkeybrains co-founder Rudy Rucker, left, and technician Will Guan scout out where to put an antenna for their Internet network.

San Francisco is the self-styled innovation capital of the world, with tech firms headquartered here changing the world at the speed of light.

If that's true, then earth-shattering change is happening despite an Internet infrastructure that is stuck on dialup speed.

Internet connections in The City are notoriously slower than other high-tech hubs around the world -- and even some streams in tiny Sonoma County towns put The City to shame.

"No one likes waiting for things to buffer," Rudy Rucker said recently. "And it's only going to get worse."

Rucker, co-founder of local Internet service provider Monkeybrains, thinks the average consumer will demand 100-megabit per second access at home in a few years' time. That's almost three times faster than the typical Internet connection in The City, but not nearly as fast as the speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second he thinks he can deliver to San Francisco.

So how much is fast Internet worth? In a city flush with cash but short on fast, Rucker thinks the answer is a couple thousand dollars per customer.

For that price, Internet-seekers would receive a rooftop antenna two feet in diameter and the chance to enjoy Internet of up to a gigabit per second -- provided that roof is in the right neighborhood.

SLOW-NET NATION

Internet connections in San Francisco are quicker than in most American cities. But, still, that's not saying much.

Most homes in urban South Korea enjoy 100-megabit per second Internet connections, with speeds of up to 1 gigabit available. In Hong Kong, the average speed clocked in at 63.6 megabits per second.

Compare that to San Francisco, where the average Internet speed is 36.97 megabits per second , according to Speedtest.net. That's slower than Los Angeles, New York City and San Jose -- and that's if you're lucky.

Major player Comcast offers an average of 27.5 megabits per second, according to a PC Magazine survey. That's well behind international competition, but downright turbocharged compared to AT&T U-Verse's advertised average of 6 megabits per second for San Francisco customers.

Even Sebastopol enjoys faster connections. Some residents of the Sonoma County town enjoy gigabit Internet access thanks to local favorite Sonic.net, which has also offered that lightning-fast connection in Brentwood.

But those speeds are not available in San Francisco. The problem is infrastructure, as in not enough of it.

Internet connections require hardware -- copper phone wire for DSLs, coaxial cable that also delivers television for cable modems -- and Internet providers in The City simply don't have the network capacity to offer world-class Internet speeds.

There is ample network capacity in The City. The problem is, it's not available. There are miles of dark fiber underneath city streets, fiber that's publicly owned but not in use (hence "dark").

In theory, that's enough network capacity to blanket San Francisco in free Internet, of speeds of up to 100 gigabits per second, Rucker said.

In practice, access to dark fiber has been limited to UC San Francisco and a few other nonprofit players, in part because The City wants to ensure there's ample fiber for its own future use.

A Change.org petition first circulated in 2013 asked The City to loosen regulations and allow willing and eager companies to access The City's unused fiber network. It netted thousands of signatures.

But The City won't make a move until after a protocol for allowing private access is established. That's coming, as part of an upcoming connectivity plan from the Department of Technology, according to Miguel Gamino, The City's chief information officer.

MICROWAVE OF THE FUTURE

That leaves Rucker with the 24-inch microwave antenna that he and three other Monkeybrains employees installed on a Potrero Hill roof on a recent afternoon.

This antenna -- and thousands of others like it around The City -- is the workaround for Monkeybrains' lack of a citywide hardware network: They are wireless links to the company's hardwire connections to the Web.

That's the hardware necessary for Monkeybrains to expand its offerings. With each antenna purchased and installed, the ISP's $35-per-month service is available to more people.

But to make the promise of Internet 10 times faster than most offerings in The City, the company needs a network of these antennas.

An Indiegogo campaign seeking $250,000 for as many as 100 new microwave antennas had raised more than $233,000 as of late Tuesday, with five days left to go.

It appears premium Internet is in demand. So far, 70 donors have plunked down $2,500 to pay for antennas strong enough to deliver Internet up to 500 megabits per second on top of their roofs -- and four donors have contributed $4,000 apiece for ultra-premium antennas that promise Internet speeds of 500 to 700 megabits per second.

It's not available everywhere. Customers need to be close enough to the hardwire connections the company uses in the Bayview, Potrero Hill and on Ocean Avenue.

And if the company ever wins access to The City's dark fiber?

"We could expand our footprint to the Richmond and the Sunset very rapidly," he said.

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Bio:
Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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