A new effort to bring high-speed fiber-optics communication potential to Palo Alto homes and businesses is nearing the point of being submitted to the City Council for budget approval in late June.
So called "fiber to the home" -- or more recently "fiber to the premise" to include small businesses (most larger firms already have fiber) -- has been a topic of community discussion and debate for nearly 20 years. The shorthand is FTTH or FTTP for those engaged in the dialogue of advocacy and delays. A broader shorthand once was linking "the last mile" between the fiber source and homes/businesses. It's been a long last-mile trudge.
Once upon a time cities across America and beyond were looking to Palo Alto, as the ostensible heart of Silicon Valley, to see what this tech-happy community was going to do. No longer. Palo Alto now finds itself in the position of being a follower, with other cities, counties or regions leading the way.
This caution may have been wise, avoiding false starts and expensive do-overs as equipment and technology evolved. A trial installation of fiber in some neighborhoods dead-ended when donated equipment turned out to be obsolescent.
And the expense of installing fiber-optic cables throughout Palo Alto neighborhoods -- estimates ran as high or higher than $40 million at one point -- was a significant deterrent.
Yet there's a growing feeling in this round that something might really happen. From time to time over the past decade and a half I have asked local fiber advocates and officials whether it was time for me to write the FTTH/P "obituary." If not dead it most assuredly was comatose, lying there with remnants of citizen advisory committees and old debates that flared up with promises during council election campaigns.
But the resuscitation, or resurrection, of fiber as a possibility for the "heart of Silicon Valley" has one major source: Google. The massive communications firm's decision to fund FTTH/P systems shocked the Palo Alto policymakers and staff into action, first applying for a Google grant and then getting down to the business of tapping into Google's latest, regional round of installations.
A budget item for fiber has been tentatively scheduled for consideration at the council's June 27 meeting, delayed from June 13, according to Jonathan Reichental, an assistant city manager overseeing staff-level discussions of a possible "co-build" for the project. The co-build has not yet been precisely defined publicly, but likely includes some type of installation of fiber as an extension or back-up to the Google-installed fiber.
Whatever system is installed will entail extensive trenching in Palo Alto neighborhoods. Years back, one advocate of higher-speed internet, Joe Villareal, commented that the city should take the initiative in installing fiber to prevent private, competing firms from installing their own, proprietary fiber systems and creating "trench warfare in the streets of Palo Alto." Great line.
Staff-level discussions are underway and a report, originally expected by the mid-June council meeting, is due out before the matter returns to the council with a budget item. Google has announced plans to create an extensive fiber-optic rollout in cities across the nation.
One Palo Alto official said the Google discussions are going well and an agreement is at the stage of "dotting the i's and crossing the t's" prior to being made public.
One huge boost to Palo Alto's confidence about going for full-out FTTH/P has been the stunning success of the so-called "fiber ring" that the city, swallowing hard, approved in 1996 despite concerns about the nearly $2 million installation cost. The ring was installed as "dark fiber," meaning that it wasn't lighted up with communications traffic.
Slowly the city began leasing out fiber wires to companies -- at a loss in early years. But after a significant rate adjustment the leases started piling in and the system started making a profit, or "an excess of revenues over costs." Can cities make profits?
Today the system generates an, ahem, profit of close to $2 million a year, equivalent to the initial investment. Not bad.
So there is revenue that could be tapped for expansion of fiber to homes and businesses, although many details and questions remain to be sorted out. How far up the hills into low-density residential regions should fiber extend? Who pays for the "last 100 feet" connection to homes and businesses?
Sorting out the details, where the devil hides of course, is a task facing staff and the council right now, with some urgency for approval of the budget by the state-imposed deadline of June 30.
Reichental expressed optimism about the discussions/negotiations with Google, describing the tech giant as being responsive and joining in a "good dialogue" with the city about alternatives and possibilities for a collaborative, "public-private" partnership.
Google approached the city on the new round about two years ago as it was exploring creating a truly regional network throughout the Bay Area, Reichental said.
Another big boost for fiber resurrection was that City Council members Liz Kniss -- who witnessed most of the starts, false starts, distractions and concerns that derailed earlier efforts on expanding fiber citywide -- and Nancy Shepherd attended a conference on FTTH/P in Kansas City. Ah, resist, resist saying "... where everything's up to date."
There a big topic was the creation of what was called "Google Villages," where installation was based on a minimum number of signups in designated areas.
The long-running community debate on growth in Palo Alto, and whether it's evolving (or has evolved) from a suburban to an urban community, or whether its future is "becoming another Beverly Hills or another Berkeley," has not yet encompassed the notion of its becoming a village.