As a city that views itself as digital paradise, Palo Alto rarely looks to places like Louisiana, Kansas and Utah for technological guidance.
Yet with its 15-year effort to install a citywide fiber-optic network capable of delivering ultra-high-speed Internet still near the starting point, City Council members and city staff have been racking up airline miles in recent months as they scoured the nation for success stories that Palo Alto can emulate. On Thursday afternoon, they took a step that they hope will finally get the city closer to its goal by directing staff to create a detailed "master plan" that would identify exactly what the fiber-optic system would look like and how it would function.
The goal is clear: to give every Palo Alto household broadband connectivity at speeds greater than 100 megabits per second. The service would greatly boost customers' ability to upload and download videos, take classes from their homes and take advantage of cloud-based technology and of "smart grid" services that enable water conservation and energy efficiency. Other applications for the Fiber to the Premise program include telemedicine and remote applications of sensory networks, said Jim Fleming, a manager in the Utilities Department who has recently attended technology conferences in Kansas City and in New York City.
The path toward the goal remains murky. Every community that has adopted such a system has had distinct objectives, challenges and opportunities. Some, like Lafayette, adopted a system because they felt they were underserved by incumbent Internet providers. The system in Provo, Utah, was taking advantage of the city's existing fiber network, which was recently purchased by Google. The telecom giant is also behind the citywide fiber network in Kansas City and a forthcoming one in Austin, Texas.
"Every city has challenges and everyone is in the process of figuring out what to do," Fleming told the council's Technology and the Connected City Committee. "Even those communities that have built it are realizing that the markets are changing and that they need to keep up with that. You need to have this crystal ball to tell you where the market will be 10 years from now."
In lieu of a crystal ball, the committee on Thursday settled for a road map a Fiber-to-the-Premise Master Plan, which is scheduled to be completed within nine months. Under the staff proposal, the city will would also develop a "request for proposals" for service providers and conduct an environmental review for the citywide system.
The four-member technology committee unanimously endorsed the master-plan effort, but only after directing staff to consider various options for providing the ultra-high-speed Internet service. Councilman Larry Klein said it shouldn't be "a given" that the service would be administered by a third party.
"The alternative is that we could run the system," Klein said.
The decision about who will run the system will be made later. City Manager James Keene compared the dilemma to the "option offense" in football, which allows the quarterback to decide on the fly whether to use his arm or his legs to pick up yards. The initial work, he said, would not preclude either option.
"We may pass, we may run it, but we're not at that point yet," Keene said. "We may want to do some of the basic work that allows us to go in either direction."
So far, the city's experience with third-party service providers has been shaky at best. In 2006, when the city went out to look for a provider, it attracted the interest of a three-firm consortium that offered to build a citywide FTTP network. The city pulled the plug on that effort in 2009, after the consortium asked the city for subsidies.
The fiber network isn't the only Internet initiative the city is pursuing. In a separate motion, the city authorized staff to begin work on a "Wireless Network Plan" aimed at boosting cell reception, enhancing radio communication and providing WiFi service to the community at parks and classrooms throughout the city.
Some work has already begun. Last month, Mayor Greg Scharff "flipped the switch" on free WiFi at Cogswell Plaza in downtown. Other parks could soon get similar treatment.
Chief Information Officer Jonathan Reichental estimated that building the wireless network would cost between $3 million and $5 million. The funds coming from the revenues the city currently generates from its "dark fiber" ring, a 40-mile underground system that provides ultra-high-speed Internet to dozens of commercial customers.
Reichental said that free WiFi has been tried at other cities including Mountain View and Santa Clara with mixed results. But Palo Alto's Internet connection would be "high speed and reliable."
"It would not be acceptable to the community, staff or council to make this type of investment and to have a disappointing result," Reichental said. "It has to be good."
The two efforts -- fiber and wireless -- will have some overlap. Among the most effective ways to boost wireless service is to use the fiber network as a base for the wireless Internet. For that reason, Jeff Hoel, a leading advocate for Fiber to the Premise, urged the council not to proceed with the wireless plan until it figures out what to do with the fiber.
But Reichental and Keene both argued that the city can proceed with the Wireless Network plan without further slowing down the city's journey toward fiber. Keene noted that the city can start by using the existing dark-fiber ring to boost wireless service. Reichental emphasized that the wireless plan doesn't have to be implemented all at once. The wireless plan, which the committee endorsed by a unanimous vote, would have both near-term and long-term objectives.
"We do believe we can make progress on both without jeopardizing one or the other," Reichental said.