News

Council backs new vision for fiber network

Palo Alto to explore 'Fiber to the Node' model for bringing faster internet to residents, businesses

Palo Alto's exhausting effort to expand its "dark fiber" ring and make ultra-high-speed internet broadly available to businesses and residents took a new direction Monday night, when the City Council directed staff to design a system of neighborhood "nodes" that would allow residents and businesses to plug into the growing network.

In a marked departure from the "Fiber to the Premises" effort that the city has been studying for the past two decades, the council voted 6-2 on Monday night to explore a shift to what's known as "Fiber to the Node." Instead of bringing fiber-based internet access to every location, the new plan would bring it into each neighborhood and rely on residents, business owners and the private sector to supply the "last mile" connection.

In directing staff to develop a business case for "Fiber to the Node," council members agreed that the effort has consumed far too much time and energy. They had some disagreements, however, over what the government's role should be in the growing system. Councilman Tom DuBois supported staff's proposal for the new service model and argued that the city has an opportunity to provide a valuable service that current incumbents AT&T and Comcast are not offering.

Councilman Greg Tanaka and Councilwoman Karen Holman, the only dissenters in the council's vote, favored an "open access" approach in which the city would have less direct involvement. Under Tanaka's proposal, the city would offer telecommunication firms subsidies to build "open access" networks. This approach, Tanaka argued, would allow other providers to plug into these networks, spurring competition and lowering costs.

Tanaka, a tech entrepreneur, pointed out that AT&T and Comcast currently offer connections that fall well short of the performance standards the city is seeking. Cities and countries that follow the open-access model have far more competition and, as a result, much better services than Palo Alto. Adopting this approach, he argued, would make sure that Palo Alto has "the fastest, cheapest broadband."

"You have to enable competitors to come in," Tanaka said. "I believe that if we set up a competitive environment, this would encourage a lot of ISPs (internet service providers) to provide services."

The approach that the council approved does not preclude exploration of an open-access policy. But rather than merely spurring competition, it would pit the city against private-market competitors. In recent years, staff from the Utilities and Information Technology departments had been cautious about taking on the likes of Google, Comcast and AT&T, pointing at recent proposals by the giant firms to expand their broadband offerings.

But things haven't gone as planned. After much hoopla, Google suspended last year its plan to bring "Google Fiber" to Silicon Valley and the other companies have been focused on developing "next generation" wireless networks with gigabit-per-second speeds. The shift is part of a broad push to enable what's known as the "internet of Things" -- the ability of devices such as home appliances, security cameras and wearable technology to plug into the web, Chief Technology Officer Jonathan Reichental told the council Monday.

The approach proposed by Reichental calls for an incremental approach in which the "Fiber to the Node" system would provide an access point for neighborhood-area links. Building a FTTN network, a new report from the Information Technology Department states, may "lower barriers for potential FTTP providers to build the 'last mile' from neighborhood access nodes to individual premises."

"FTTN would provide the City with a phased and economically viable deployment approach to push fiber closer to residential neighborhoods and create a potential 'jumping off point' to bring fiber to individual premises (i.e. building the 'last mile')," the report states. "Ancillary benefits would also occur by expanding the functionality and the choices of technology that can be implemented for Utilities and Public Safety and to support Smart City, Smart Grid and wireless applications depended on fiber-optics communication links."

Reichental acknowledged the many years of exploration that have already been invested in "Fiber to the Premise" but argued that the changing market warrants a new approach.

"We can't continue to exhaust every angle when the economics and the environment has fundamentally changed," Reichental said, noting that most people now access the internet through their smartphones rather than through their computers.

DuBois agreed that this approach could be a viable model, though he also suggested that the city can play a prominent role in creating a new system -- well beyond simply enabling more private-sector competition.

Such a system, he noted, need not be a money drain. The city's fiber-optic ring, which currently serves dozens of commercial customers, has generated more than $25 million in revenues -- money that can be used to expand the service and bring it to more people.

"This isn't a policy discussion about speed; it's a discussion about who wants a physical infrastructure and whether it's public or private," DuBois said. "If it's private and it's owned by a monopolistic company, will we continue to have backups in service?

"City-owned infrastructure provides the city an opportunity to provide its residents a great service at great prices," DuBois said.

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Comments

10 people like this
Posted by 38 year resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 22, 2017 at 11:35 am

They will find a way to screw this up and by the time the Palo Alto "Process" has been completed the technology will be obsolete and have cost overruns that make it a financial boondoggle.


11 people like this
Posted by Robert Smith
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 22, 2017 at 12:38 pm

City ownership and control of Internet connectivity no longer makes any sense. It perhaps made some sense in 1998 but, gradually, the idea has become less and less relevant.

Today, the incumbent providers are meeting the needs. Comcast's traditional service goes up to 250 mbs, and both Comcast and AT&T are adding gigabit service for homes. I don't think most people need more than about 150 mbs, but if you think you need a lot of bandwidth, be my guest.

Yet the city continues to decry the availability of fiber and high speed Internet. It is certainly true that the incumbents are using technology that minimizes the amount of rewiring that has to be done, but that can be seen as a good thing for the community.

The new "FTTN" approach that the city is now going to spend our money on is rather useless. It involves new wiring to localized "nodes", but no connections to homes or businesses. The city envisions that neighborhoods will work together to contract for wiring to their homes, or perhaps some company will come in and do it.

FTTN is the easy part. The connection to individual premises, plus the all-important marketing and support, are the hard part. But who is going to do these things?

We can hope that this is never built and perhaps the city will wake up and realize that the battle for Internet connectivity that they have been trying to wage is over and the city has lost.


Like this comment
Posted by Charles
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 22, 2017 at 1:01 pm

Investments in City dark fiber have long ago been 100% paid by fees from commercial users. Moreover, a $28 million Fiber Fund reserve now growing about $3 million a year from user fees, will fund future improvements to City fiber.

The telecom industry continues to rate dead last in customer satisfaction, with Comcast and AT&T bringing up the rear of this sorry lot. Dead last.

The City of Palo Alto, using Fiber Fund reserves (no tax money involved), seeks to create more telecom competition leading to better services at lower prices from more competitors than just incumbent providers Comcast and AT&T.

Commercial users, using Palo Alto Dark Fiber, for the past two decades have been able to choose from over 80 Internet Service Providers offering blazing speed at low costs. This is a top reason high tech innovation is concentrated in Palo Alto.

Palo Alto residents, with a home office in nearly every dwelling, have effectively 2 ISP choices. Limited choices cost us every day in higher prices and disappointing services.

Council is doing a responsible job seeking a brighter Internet future for Palo Alto. Each member deserves our support, and thanks.


2 people like this
Posted by Neighborhood Fiber Already Going In?
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 22, 2017 at 1:19 pm

Some months ago, I saw crews undergrounding cables on Channing and Hamilton in our neighborhood. The cable was coming from giant wood spools labelled as "fiber."

The crews worked for many days and also reportedly showed up in another neighborhood.

Does anyone know what company was behind that? Someone in the city government must, as it surely required permission. If that private effort was installing fiber to the home or even to nodes, maybe we don't need to spend public money to do so as well.


Like this comment
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 22, 2017 at 3:01 pm

john_alderman is a registered user.

AT&T has been putting some fiber in.


2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 22, 2017 at 4:05 pm

"After much hoopla, Google suspended last year its plan to bring "Google Fiber" to Silicon Valley and the other companies have been focused on developing "next generation" wireless networks with gigabit-per-second speeds."

The wise men fled. The fools rush in.


"Reichental ..., noting that most people now access the internet through their smartphones rather than through their computers."

Oh, goody. Retail-level fiber's becoming obsolete, so we're gonna pour taxpayer $$$ into it.


Like this comment
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 22, 2017 at 4:15 pm

"Commercial users, using Palo Alto Dark Fiber, for the past two decades have been able to choose from over 80 Internet Service Providers offering blazing speed at low costs. This is a top reason high tech innovation is concentrated in Palo Alto."

Maybe, maybe it's pure PA mystique.

But residential broadband application is almost entirely streaming HD: Netflix, Hulu, Apple, Amazon, plus gaming. Where's the taxpayers' ROI in more TV and games?


3 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Aug 22, 2017 at 5:27 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

The huge advantage of the Atherton Fiber approach is that the private sector bears all of the risk - and that the project is actually being implemented.


2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 22, 2017 at 6:01 pm

"The huge advantage of the Atherton Fiber approach is that the private sector bears all of the risk..."

That's the right way. Please send your first post on your new fiber to this forum.


4 people like this
Posted by Robert Smith
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 23, 2017 at 11:01 am

@Charles,

"Dark fiber", in which the city has had modest success over the years, is entirely different that FTTP or FTTN. Dark fiber is for businesses that need really large pipes and are willing to purchase their own equipment and pay for their own installations.

As far as business and residences, I think we are at the point where there is no serious business opportunity for the city here. Too much time has past, the technology has changed, and the incumbents now have a huge head start.

Both Comcast and AT&T are now to be offering 1 gbs (or more) service in Palo Alto. This is on top of the current speeds, which are more than adequate for residential use.

FTTN is not just an extension to dark fiber, it only makes sense if someone is going to build out the residential areas. I cannot imagine Google or anyone else being interested, given the new offerings from Comcast and AT&T.


2 people like this
Posted by Peninsula Commuter
a resident of another community
on Aug 23, 2017 at 3:01 pm

There is plenty of competition between AT&T and Comcast to provide faster/better high speed internet service to residences and the competition is driving prices down. AT&T is aggressively extending fiber optic service to residential areas (I see it happening here in San Jose). Palo Alto Utilities is doing just fine with their dark fiber commercial service, why do we need them to get involved with residential fiber when AT&T and Comcast are already in this market? Do you really think CPAU can do this less expensively than AT&T/Comcast?


5 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 23, 2017 at 8:48 pm

"Do you really think CPAU can do this less expensively than AT&T/Comcast?"

It ain't the cost that matters here, it's the ego.


Like this comment
Posted by Peninsula Commuter
a resident of another community
on Aug 24, 2017 at 12:28 am

Bingo! Your comment says it all.


10 people like this
Posted by wendy
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 24, 2017 at 6:13 am

I do not understand why we need to pay for internet. 1) we here in Paly practically invented the internet. 2) most scientists who make it work live here. 3) fiber is very cheap. In my home country fiber internet is everywhere for free!

Other cities should pay us for the privilege of the internet!


2 people like this
Posted by Peninsula Commuter
a resident of another community
on Aug 24, 2017 at 9:03 am

SOMEBODY has to pay the cost of high speed fiber internet to the home. Good luck getting other cities to pay for the benefit of
Palo Alto having it. Is Palo Alto a charity case?? Ask Mountain View, Los Altos and Cupertino if they're feeling generous today.


2 people like this
Posted by Robert Smith
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 24, 2017 at 9:53 am

@wendy,

As a Palo Alto resident, I am proud of Palo Alto's contributions to many things including the Internet.

However, the Internet was created by many people in many places, not just Palo Alto.

As to "free Internet", nothing is really free, it is just a question of how it is paid for.

Doing a fiber overbuild in a community served by a strong incumbent is a very expensive and risky proposition. Ask Google, they have apparently lost a lot of money in their effort to disrupt the industry.


2 people like this
Posted by Ken Allen
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 24, 2017 at 12:25 pm

Thank you Robert Smith. I hope you will volunteer your services to the City with your professional expertise and your knowledge of the prior attempt by Cable Co-op to interest the City in improving communications infrastructure.

I think it's laudable for the City to consider offering this latest upgrade. Sadly, I believe that ship has passed. The City is twenty years too late. It turned down the offer by Cable Co-op to GIVE its assets and operations to the City nearly 20 years ago. So when Cable Co-op could not afford to upgrade the residential system, it got the predecessor to Comcast to buy the system with the promise to upgrade the infrastructure with fiber backbone, which it did.

I am afraid the City would have to subsidize an upgraded system heavily to make it work. Moreover, a municipality is ill-equipped to compete effectively and efficiently with competition from existing and planned systems of fiber, DSL, Internet over cable/fiber, wireless and two-way satellite. I think they will discover that such an ambitious plan as municipal fiber to the node/neighborhood just doesn't make economic or practical sense.

{posted from St. Petersburg, Russia}


2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 24, 2017 at 1:09 pm

"we here in Paly practically invented the internet."

Sorry, but no. The initial proof of concept was done in Menlo Park. The civilian internet was created by legislation that Senator Al Gore pushed through in WDC.


2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 24, 2017 at 1:14 pm

"I think they will discover that such an ambitious plan as municipal fiber to the node/neighborhood just doesn't make economic or practical sense."

Right, but that will happen only after the fiber is strung and the money is spent. See my prior comment about ego.


Like this comment
Posted by Supply & Demand
a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 25, 2017 at 7:22 am

City Utilities should provide incentives e.g. rebates, discounts and installation helps to homes that want connections. City Utilities should also provide incentives to homes that needs power back up capabilities like battery back up etc.


Like this comment
Posted by Robert Smith
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 25, 2017 at 2:07 pm

@Ken Allen,


How are you! Really great to hear from you! I assume you are doing a mission in Russia? Amazing!

I am afraid I have not been too persuasive with the city. Every time I convince a council person of something, he/she gets term-limited out, and someone with new (not so new) ideas comes on the council.

I agree with you that the new FTTN proposal would have been useful a number of years ago as a "common carrier" approach. It really is too late now.

I often remember the Cable Co-op's offer in Feb 1998. Let me repeat it here for the benefit of other readers. On the night of the big flood, the Cable Co-op board offered the city the entire Cable Co-op franchise and system FREE OF CHARGE just for running it. The system had 28K subscribers, was cash-flow positive, worth a net asset value of $30M (which was later proven correct), and was operating a fledgling cable internet service.

The fiber group was there and they blasted the offer. The city was not interested. Why not? Well, it wasn't FIBER, which was the only technology they were interested in.

The important point was that they were focused on the technology and not on the business. The Co-op system was a perfect business platform for cable internet, fiber, whatever you wanted to make of it. They didn't see that.

I am afraid that the city is still in the dark about the business aspects of this. The latest FTTN plan suggests that neighborhoods could band together to get fiber but would have to individually pay between $800 and $5000. This is totally not acceptable in the cable/ISP business to homes and small businesses, they just won't pay such upfront costs. The city still doesn't understand the business.

Ken, speaking of big changes, both Comcast and AT&T are installing 1GB fiber for residences. I spoke to Comcast yesterday and it is available in my neighborhood (Greer). While I don't need the extra speed, I am thinking about it just to try it out. People are posting their "speed test" screens showing 900+ mbs and it is tempting.

I cannot imagine what sort of play the city now has for residences and small businesses. They need to stop the time and money they are wasting. This is so over.

Ken, I look forward to hearing about your journeys.


Bob Smith


Like this comment
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 25, 2017 at 3:15 pm

"The fiber group was there and they blasted the offer. The city was not interested. Why not? Well, it wasn't FIBER, which was the only technology they were interested in."

The fiber debacle has always been propelled 99.44% by ego.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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