Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 26, 2010

Palo Alto to woo Google for fiber network

Officials ask community to join push for a citywide, hyperfast fiber-based Internet system

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto businessmen George Gindoyan and Steve Tidwell are the true believers. The executive director of Jazz Pharmaceuticals and infrastructure manager for Playlist.com, respectively, Gindoyan and Tidwell use the city's 40.6-mile fiber-optic ring for lightning-quick access to the Internet.

They call it fast, affordable, flexible and reliable.

They could be poster children for a goal city officials and techie citizens are now pursuing: Become one of tech-giant Google's test locations for a citywide fiber network capable of delivering Internet access at speeds of up to or exceeding 1 gigabit per second. That's more than 100 times faster than what most Americans can access, according to the search company.

On Monday, the City Council unanimously voted to aggressively pursue a partnership with Mountain View-based Google for an expanded fiber network one that could use the city's existing infrastructure as its backbone.

"We, as a city, are ready to move quickly to make this a reality," Vice Mayor Sid Espinosa said.

Palo Alto already has a "ring" of fiber-optic cables that stretch underground along Page Mill, Middlefield and Arastradero roads and hang overhead at Alma Street, Embarcadero Road and East Meadow Drive. It's the very same network that Gindoyan and Tidwell are hooked up to.

But while the system supports the massive technology firms in Stanford Research Park and allows small start-ups in downtown Palo Alto to move around huge amounts of data in a matter of seconds, the ring doesn't close "the last mile" gap to homes and small businesses.

The dream of closing that gap has eluded generations of officials and tech-savvy residents alike.

Palo Alto officials plan to rally the community to support its drive toward a Google system, which could involve Google investing tens of millions of dollars in installation costs. The city's fiber ring cost an estimated $2 million to install in the late 1990s and presently clears about $2 million a year in excess revenues over costs.

Although no taxpayer money would be involved under the Google network as outlined, a key question city officials are asking is: Why should Palo Alto residents support a fiber system?

Gindoyan and Tidwell have some answers. Gindoyan said the fiber service has been an invaluable tool for Jazz Pharmaceuticals, which employs more than 300 people.

"When you deal with data and you outsource everything, this service is about as essential as water, electricity and heating," said Gindoyan, whose company is located on Porter Drive in Stanford Research Park.

The fiber ring allows Jazz Pharmaceuticals to expand and contract along with market fluctuations without having to add or reconfigure complex technology at every step, he said. The company can move from one building to another and keep its high-speed Internet connection intact and uninterrupted, he said.

And the fiber link is fast really fast. Tidwell said the 1 gigabit-per-second bandwidth makes a huge difference for his company, which has its corporate office on High Street in downtown Palo Alto and which as the name Playlist.com implies creates music playlists for its users.

"It's way more than what you'd normally be able to do with a standard DSL connection," Tidwell said. "Something that can take hours to do with a DSL connection takes only a few seconds for us."

The fact that the system never crashes also helps, Tidwell said. Aside from the Feb. 17 outage, which was caused by a plane crash that unplugged the entire city, the fiber-optic system has been delivering uninterrupted service to Playlist.com since the company moved downtown last April.

"We haven't had any outages at all since we hooked up to the fiber," Tidwell told the Weekly. "Back when we were using Comcast and AT&T, service interruptions were a weekly occurrence and a major annoyance."

Google also offers reasons its "Fiber for Communities" experiment could benefit residents.

The company cites scenarios in which rural doctors could discuss a case with a specialist in New York, while both viewing 3-D images of the patient; consumers could download a high-definition, full-length feature film in less than five minutes; or software developers could create new bandwidth-intensive "killer apps" and services.

Google stated that the network, once operational, will be open to multiple service providers.

Palo Alto has been operating its network since the late 1990s. The city often refers to it either as the "fiber ring" because it circles around the city or as "dark fiber" because it relies on customers to "light it up" before data can flow. The city owns the cables and the basic infrastructure that allows customers to connect.

The customers provide the necessary transmitters and the receivers to make the system fit their particular needs.

"The customers have a great deal of flexibility in designing their network," said Joyce Kinnear, marketing manager for the city's Utilities Department.

The city currently provides fiber service to about 45 customers at about 173 service connections, according to the city's annual budget report. The number of connections went up by 10 percent in fiscal year 2009 and is expected to increase by another 10 percent in the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30.

Meanwhile, operating revenue in the city's "fiber optics fund" has increased by 23 percent over the past two years and is projected to go up by another 14 percent this year. The system brought the Utilities Department $2.49 million in gross sales revenues in 2008 and $2.6 million in 2009. The figure is projected to go up by about $34,000 this year, according to the budget.

But while the fiber-optics system has given city officials plenty to cheer about, Palo Alto's quest to expand the network to the homes and small businesses has been plagued by years of false starts and disappointments.

The city's partnership with a Canada-based private consortium collapsed last March after the consortium's funding dried up and the city refused to provide a funding guarantee.

Months later, Palo Alto officials learned that the city's planned bid to acquire federal-stimulus funds for the citywide network is unlikely to bear fruit because the federal program is targeting "unserved" and "underserved" communities (a tough stretch for an affluent Silicon Valley community).

The City Council Monday night agreed to scrap the city's applications for federal funds and to pursue Google. The initial application is due March 26.

Bob Harrington, member of a citizens' group that advises the city on fiber issues, was one of several residents who urged the council to pursue the Google project. Harrington told the Weekly that a citywide fiber network could change the way residents work and live.

It would enable local entrepreneurs increasingly to work from home, as many already are doing in Palo Alto.

"If you're an engineer, wouldn't you like to have the ability to download and work with gigantic files at home in the same way as you currently do with little files?" Harrington asked.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by C-Parker, a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 26, 2010 at 9:38 am

I think this is a fantastic idea. good for education, business, residents and makes PA a forward town in Silicon Valley. Set the pace of technological change, not lag behind.
I look forward to it being implemented and available to local residents in the (near) future.


Posted by why here?, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 26, 2010 at 11:08 am

Underserved communities in rural America, and cities with demographic and socioeconomic challenges that are infrastructure and cash strapped should be funded by Google. The Weekly article talks about the "dream" (of FTTH) has eluded generations of officials and tech-savvy residents alike. Talk about understatements!

The history of FTTH - indeed, all communications plays, including Cable Coop, have been a near-farce, bordering on fiasco. Anyone taking the time to write a history of those efforts would spend most of her time guffawing at the sheer incompetence of policy makers and community boosters, with the latter absent any clue about how to involve the rest of our community, and the former clueless about how to manage a measured risk for revenue.

Of course, many of the same players will be lobbying Google for favors - trying to light up Google's interest in plopping down some cash. Hopefully, Google will look past these pleas and spend its money in a place where it will do no 'comparative' harm. Think about it: should Google fund a rich community that has failed over and over again to garner latent fiscal and community resources to improve itself, or should it use its money to help communities that don't have any fiscal capacity, even though the will to improve themselves is there? Why should an already rich community get another bag of goodies whilst a poor community goes without.

Palo Alto still has <current>, but latent, potential to make this happen w/o outside help. It's only through sheer lack of political will, vision, and general incompetence (the latter, on the back of the FTTH "community organizer" side) that we dont' have FTTH now. This latter group, the "community organizers" is due for special criticism, as they steadfastly refused to look past their own noses and get out into the community to organize their fellow citizens when the window of opportunity was open in the past. Instead, they kept their little FTTH trial mostly to themselves, benefiting from relatively cheap fiber service during the trial and did <nothing> to organize the community - zip! So, who is going to inform our community about the benefits of fiber? I don't think it will happen. I don't believe that this community - <especially> this community - will respond to "build it and they will come". What will happen is that a small group of insiders will get the angle on this goodie, and place constraints on it that keep it from being optimized. Why? Because the current group that is pushing this, and has an inside track to policy makers <donk't know what they're doing>.

Instead, what will happen is a concerted effort by this same, small insider group, and that same group - clueless about how to market, organize, motivate, sell, plan, politic, reach out, cooperate, etc. with/for/to their fellow citizens will claim inside hegemony over this freebee network. <They> will be the ones who stick their mitts into the oven to bake what <they> want into it; they will be the ones with the largest voice about what our municipality does with fiber.

What a ironic <tragedy> that would be, because just like Cable Co-op, a hopelessly run fiasco if there ever was one, what will evolve is a bunch of insider infighting over this free Google goodie.

So, Google, PLEASE DON'T deploy FTTH in Palo Alto. Pass over Palo Alto, a place that could, now - if it had the political will, and an informed community (something that several local efforts at FTTH has NEVER resulted in), could have fiber within the next two years, with relatively risk-free investment. Redwood City, EPA, San Jose, San Francisco (how about Hunter's Point, as a neighborhood install?), Oakland, Newark, Richmond, Vallejo, Modesto, etc. THOSE are the places that Google's money should go to. Google, **do the right thing**, and give your money where it will do the most good; don't spend it on city that has proven over and over again that it doesn't know what to do with opportunity - or have messed up opportunity - so pregnant that it stares one in the face.

All in all, Palo Alto <could> deploy fiber on its own. Many possibilities exist. Many possibilities that lie outside the "risk-free" zone that so-called supporters of fiber on City Council just wouldn't let themselves consider, as those same members made policy mistake after policy mistake in other areas that cost our city revenue that could otherwise have gone to build fiber (kishimoto, in particular, comes to mind here - god help California if she makes it into the Assembly!). Others are those who voted to cave in to the Enron lawsuit, while other communities fought and won against it (imagine, paying $20M to an extortionist, criminal organization like Enron, without a fight).

Heck, Google isn't in Palo Alto right now because one of the "insiders" in the FTTH group has helped to keep in totla limbo, the property directly across the street on Park Ave. from where Google was going to place one of its divisions. Good insider information has it that Google opted out there because it didn't want to be forever across the street from a never-ending construction zone.

All that said, I wish Google well with this idea. I just hope they keep their senses and put their money where it will do the most good; certainly one of those places is not Palo Alto.


Posted by Bruce, a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 26, 2010 at 12:03 pm

The post above looks like incumbent FUD, right out of the Comcast playbook. In fact, it was a cut-and-paste from another article about Google fiber that appeared a few days ago.

The incumbents, Comcast and AT&T, do NOT want Google fiber to serve a town like Palo Alto. They realize this would be true competition, in fact, competition that would blow them away in a hurry.

In the next 4 weeks, you will see every manner of 'FUD thinking' like that above. Be careful about relying, or giving any credence to, thoughts from paid assassins. I know I do.


Posted by why here?, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 26, 2010 at 1:24 pm

Bruce, no paid assassins here. Just concerned Palo Altans who have been there and done that. Comcast? Comcast sucks! So does AT&T! How's that? That said, there is a lot of truth in what was posted above. Palo Alto does NOT deserve this Google freebee, for three reasons:

1) Palo Alto, if it gathers political and community will <can afford to do this on it's own>.

2) Google's money spent in wealthy Palo Alto will have massive negative social opportunity costs due to that money not being spent in a place that can profit fiscally and socially by a magnitude of order more than we would from the same investment. We talk a good liberal game about helping others in Palo Alto; let's see us walk that talk when it comes down to showing what we're made of.

For those two reasons, and others listed above, Google should not invest here.

Again, Comcast SUCKS! It's prices are too high; it's annual increases are egregious; it's customer service is poor; it's constrains consumer-driven commerce, and lots more. You want to get away from Comcast, go buy a box that streams Hulu to your digital TV, subscribe to Netflix - do anything but try to copt a freebee that best belongs to a place that NEEDS is more than we do, and will USE if for more social and fiscal good than we will.

How about the FTTH "community organizing" group gettingn their chops together re: REAL community organizing, instead of the weekly whine in City Council chambers. how about PA policymakers getting creative around measured risk? It's a new day; it's time to learn new ways.

Again, Comcast SUCKS! It that Comcast FUD? Say "yes" and you look like a whiner, instead of a doer. I suggest a good long <honest> look in the mirror by the groups I've mentioned above, and then going out and <getting it done> instead of looking for a handout that someone else needs 100 times more than we do.


Posted by Howard, a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 26, 2010 at 9:27 pm

So how much would it cost residents like myself to connect to this fiber ring? I would pay a bit more than I currently for my DSL if the city would let me connect!


Posted by why here?, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 27, 2010 at 1:07 pm

Great question, Howard! Guess why you don't have an answer, readily available? It's because nobody has taken the time - over <many> years - to reach out to the public and inform us of benefits of fiber, with pricing etc. etc. easily available, etc. etc. Heck, other than 1) an occasional photo op for certain past policy makers who wrote self-serving editorials about fiber; 2) a lot of hullabaloo by "community organizers" (Ha!); and, 3) a small fortune spent on consultants - not to mention hundreds and hundreds of hours of unaccounted for staff time, most of Palo Alto doesn't even know we <have> a fiber ring.

The "community organizers" that are pushing for the Google freebee are the same people who will be "inside" any Google freebee, if it comes our way, with the ear of City staff. One can only imagine how that will turn out, given past failures in telecommunications plays here.

So how do you think that will go? As for policy makers here - who mean well - most really don't have a clue about how to drive effective enterprise that is largely attached to City operations. That's a whole different post; instead, they, defer to this vocal group of "community experts" who know a lot about connectors and bits and bytes and bandwidth speed but don't have even a small clue about how to successfully execute anything in the market. In fact, they resist that sort of thing, believing that "build it and they will come" is the answer. They <still> believe that. The current situation, and multiple, fiasco-laden failures in the past is proof of their haplessness as community entrepreneurs.

Google, again, please pass Palo Alto by on this one. Perhaps if you come up with a municipal management tool inside of Google docs, or an effective public outreach tool, then send it our way - we need that, perhaps far more than adjacent communities in more dire need of fiscal resources than we are, but who eat our lunch when it comes to project execution.


Posted by C.Jone Young, a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 15, 2010 at 5:37 pm

Downtown Mountain View area


Posted by K Young, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 15, 2010 at 5:38 pm

It is nice to see it is coming.


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