Palo Alto officials won't be popping champagne bottles this week, when their long-deferred dream of a citywide high-speed Internet finally comes true.
That's because the dream will be coming true in Provo, Utah, a city that doesn't claim to be the technological capital of the universe and that hadn't spent the better part of the past two decades watching one effort after another end in heartbreak. On Tuesday night, the Provo City Council is set to approve a plan by Google to make Provo the third community to benefit from the company's fiber services. It follows in the footsteps of Austin, Texas, and Kansas City, Mo., the city that the Mountain View-based tech giant chose in 2011 as the testing ground for its Google Fiber system.
It also does little for Palo Alto's self esteem to know that Chattanooga, Tenn., another city with a municipal utility, already has a fiber-to-the-premise system in place, offering its customers the fastest Internet connection in America. Or that San Leandro's business-focused system, Lit San Leandro, flickered into existence a year ago -- a product of a public-private partnership. Last September, San Leandro received $2.1 million in federal funding for an expansion of its fiber-optic loop, which the city touts on its website as a way to "revolutionize San Leandro's infrastructure, positioning the City to be a major player in the high-tech and clean-tech economies."
With Palo Alto's dream becoming a reality elsewhere, city officials have in recent months renewed their vow to pursue a citywide fiber-optic network that will deliver high-speed Internet to the masses. In February, the City Council adopted "technology and the connected city" as one of its three official priorities for 2013, with several members singling out "fiber to the premise" as a central component of this priority. And in March, Mayor Greg Scharff argued in his "State of the City" that it's time to settle the city's long and frustrating debate over fiber.
"Ultra-high-speed Internet has been a Palo Alto vision for a long time," Scharff said. "Now is the time to fulfill that vision."
The city has some reasons for optimism. One has to do with finances. Last week, the council's Finance Committee learned that the city's Fiber Fund, which takes in revenues from the roughly 80 commercial customers who use Palo Alto's 41-mile dark-fiber ring, is bringing in about $2.1 million a year. Viewed as a risky investment two decades ago, the fund has in recent years become a plump cash cow. According to a new report from the Utilities Department, its reserves stand at $14.6 million in the current fiscal year and are expected to nearly double by 2018.
Furthermore, because the fiber service (unlike other utilities) is not a municipal monopoly, the city has more discretion in spending the money in the Fiber Fund than it would have with other utilities, City Attorney Molly Stump told the council's Finance Committee during an April 16 discussion of the topic. Stump told the committee that there are "fewer limitations" on this group of funds because fiber "is not a traditional utility." The council will have some latitude, she said, in coming up with policies on how to use the funds.
The brightened financial outlook has done as much as success stories elsewhere to motivate city officials. Economics are still important, but they are no longer the sole consideration. At a March 22 joint meeting between the council and the Utilities Advisory Commission Councilmen Pat Burt advocated looking at "fiber to the premise" as something more than a business venture. It would also be a community service, Burt said, and an economic-development opportunity.
The city is already eying an extension of the fiber ring to all local schools and has been working on an agreement with the school district to do so, Utilities Director Valerie Fong told the Utilities Advisory Commission during an April 3 discussion. But the grand prize remains "fiber to the premise." Last year, the commission voted 4-3 to stop pursuing the project after economic projections indicated that it would be cost prohibitive. But earlier this month, commissioners enthusiastically declared their willingness to roll up their sleeves and get back to work on this project (The commission is scheduled to consider the topic of fiber again at a special noon meeting on May 1).
Commissioner Jonathan Foster noted at the April 3 discussion that the idea of a citywide fiber network has been floating around Palo Alto for many years and said his views on the project have changed since last year, partly because of the council's new attitude about fiber. Before, when economics were the main driver of the conversation, he was more or less neutral, Foster said.
"Now, my approach is -- let's find a way to make this happen," Foster said. "I'm not sure we'll get there but let's come back with the best proposal we can," Foster said.
Commission Chair James Cook voiced a similar sentiment.
"I think this is probably a good idea whose time has finally come," Cook said. "Maybe now it's just gotten the right kind of momentum."
To get the effort rolling, Scharff had recently created a four-member council committee devoted to explore fiber. In addition to Scharff himself, the committee includes Klein, Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd and Councilwoman Liz Kniss, who advocated for building the dark-fiber ring in the 1990s, during her first stint on the council.
At last week's brief discussion of fiber revenues, Councilman Greg Schmid remarked on how the fiber reserve is "growing dramatically" and concluded that when it comes to fiber, "we are in a new period of time." He pointed to other cities that have recently installed fiber networks, including Chattanooga and Kansas City and argued that Palo Alto should follow their examples.
"We're in a position where we have to find out what is going on in these communities," Schmid said. "It would seem to make sense to spend some of this money to get people out there and find out what's taking place."