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After several false starts, Palo Alto renews push to expand fiber utility

Utilities Advisory Commission recommends growing municipal fiber network to all parts of city within 5 years

The city would build an additional 44 miles of fiber, illustrated here, as part of a plan developed by its consultant, Magellan Advisors. The placement of fiber is designed to enable the city's ultimate adoption of Fiber to the Premise. Image courtesy city of Palo Alto.

With more people than ever before banking on high-speed internet for their work, school and entertainment needs, Palo Alto is preparing to resuscitate a project that has stifled generations of city leaders: expansion of the city's municipal fiber network.

Palo Alto's dream for expanding the dark fiber network to every corner of the city has been flickering on and off for years, with prior councils exploring different business models that relied, to various extents, on private sector partners and that invariably ended in disappointment. Palo Alto's most promising foray into citywide fiber expansion occurred in 2009, when the council was on the brink of a deal with a consortium of companies led by the Canadian firm Axia Netmedia Corporation just as the economic downturn hit and the deal swiftly collapsed. After that, the city flirted with other partnerships, including with Google, only to inevitably end up jilted, disappointed and back at step one.

The current council, like most its predecessors, is fully on board with expanding the city's quietly successful fiber network, which premiered in 1996 and which today generates more than $3 million in revenues from about 220 business customers. But while the dream is the same, the circumstances are dramatically different. The city is no longer banking on the private sector for help, opting instead for a do-it-alone approach that gives it greater control over its fiber destiny (albeit, with greater risk). The city's Utilities Advisory Commission strongly supports the effort, having voted unanimously last week to move ahead with a plan that would connect all neighborhoods to the expanded fiber network within five years. Utilities Department staff, which in the past has been reluctant to challenge private sector incumbents in the broadband market, is now preparing to implement a plan that would significantly expand the fiber network.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which pushed the demand for high-speed internet connection to new heights, has raised the project's political prospects, turning what was once a community moonshot into a practical necessity. During its recent discussion of economic recovery, several council members, including Mayor Tom DuBois, made a case for renewing the city's push toward Fiber to the Premise, a system in which nearly every home and business is connected to the municipal fiber service. DuBois, a longtime proponent, also highlighted the project last month in his State of the City speech.

"We have the opportunity to create a new city utility and deliver superior service to our residents," DuBois said.

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Having declared their will to expand the fiber network, city officials are now exploring the best way to do so. On April 21, the city's Utilities Advisory Commission dove deep into the latest analysis of the city's fiber prospects and reached a unanimous consensus on the best path forward. The commissioners agreed that the city shouldn't just build the citywide fiber system, it should also serve as the internet service provider. They also agreed that rather than taking a phased approach in which residents in some neighborhoods would get fiber service in the early phase of the expansion while those in other parts of the city would wait for future phases, the city should try to cover the entire city within five years.

Much of the early legwork for the expanded fiber network has already been completed. The city's consulting firm, Magellan Advisors, has designed a system that would add 44 miles of fiber to the existing municipal network. This includes 432-count loose-tube fiber cable that would support various city departments and services (including traffic signals and broadband connection) as well as a 144-count fiber cable to support the electric utility by providing redundancy and supporting grid modernization.

"This becomes a citywide infrastructure that strengthens your ability and capability to be able to govern and empower the community," John Honker, CEO of Magellan, told the commission on April 21.

The initial expansion of the fiber network would cost between $22 million and $28 million, a hefty but not insurmountable sum for a municipal utility that currently has a $30 million enterprise fund. Because this expansion focuses on municipal services rather than homes and businesses, it falls well short of Fiber to the Premise. Yet because the newly installed fiber network would stretch across all neighborhoods, it would enable the city to move ahead with a broader expansion at a future date.

The commission, for its part, made it clear that it wants the expansion of fiber to go well beyond municipal uses. It also agreed that unlike in the past, the city shouldn't depend on private companies for help. Commissioner Greg Scharff, who as a two-time mayor is well acquainted with the council's fruitless struggle to expand the fiber system, suggested that seeking out private partners (an option that was presented by Magellan) would likely be a waste of time.

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"In the last 10 years that I've followed Fiber to the Premise, every time we go out and try to do some sort of public-private partnership, either people don't bid or it falls apart," Scharff said. "The more you explore it, the more there is opportunity for delay."

His colleagues largely shared his enthusiasm, even as they acknowledged the risks that the project would necessarily entail. The commission supported Magellan's proposal to conduct a community survey, put together a risk assessment and move ahead with additional engineering work, both for the near-term expansion of the fiber network and for the ultimate build-out of Fiber to the Premise. The commission also directed staff and Magellan to accelerate their community outreach efforts and to issue a survey to gauge customers' willingness to sign up for the new utility.

The firm expects to complete its additional work, as well as the survey, by the end of March 2022. Once that's done, the commission and the council will further refine the fiber proposal and consider funding mechanisms for the broader expansion, which according to Magellan's report is expected to cost more than $90 million.

Despite the high costs and potential risks, the commission enthusiastically supported advancing the fiber effort.

"We've all lived through the last year of COVID-19," Commissioner Loren Smith said. "And if anything, it has certainly highlighted the need for very, very extreme levels of broadband services in our homes, when we ourselves at work online full-time, when our children are online full time.

"Yes, we are getting back to some degree of normalcy, but that is not happening quickly."

Commissioner A.C. Johnston agreed. An upgraded fiber system, he said, would bring significant benefits to the community.

"This is important progress for something that's very important to the community," Johnston said. "And I want to see us keep moving forward."

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After several false starts, Palo Alto renews push to expand fiber utility

Utilities Advisory Commission recommends growing municipal fiber network to all parts of city within 5 years

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Wed, Apr 28, 2021, 9:43 am

With more people than ever before banking on high-speed internet for their work, school and entertainment needs, Palo Alto is preparing to resuscitate a project that has stifled generations of city leaders: expansion of the city's municipal fiber network.

Palo Alto's dream for expanding the dark fiber network to every corner of the city has been flickering on and off for years, with prior councils exploring different business models that relied, to various extents, on private sector partners and that invariably ended in disappointment. Palo Alto's most promising foray into citywide fiber expansion occurred in 2009, when the council was on the brink of a deal with a consortium of companies led by the Canadian firm Axia Netmedia Corporation just as the economic downturn hit and the deal swiftly collapsed. After that, the city flirted with other partnerships, including with Google, only to inevitably end up jilted, disappointed and back at step one.

The current council, like most its predecessors, is fully on board with expanding the city's quietly successful fiber network, which premiered in 1996 and which today generates more than $3 million in revenues from about 220 business customers. But while the dream is the same, the circumstances are dramatically different. The city is no longer banking on the private sector for help, opting instead for a do-it-alone approach that gives it greater control over its fiber destiny (albeit, with greater risk). The city's Utilities Advisory Commission strongly supports the effort, having voted unanimously last week to move ahead with a plan that would connect all neighborhoods to the expanded fiber network within five years. Utilities Department staff, which in the past has been reluctant to challenge private sector incumbents in the broadband market, is now preparing to implement a plan that would significantly expand the fiber network.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which pushed the demand for high-speed internet connection to new heights, has raised the project's political prospects, turning what was once a community moonshot into a practical necessity. During its recent discussion of economic recovery, several council members, including Mayor Tom DuBois, made a case for renewing the city's push toward Fiber to the Premise, a system in which nearly every home and business is connected to the municipal fiber service. DuBois, a longtime proponent, also highlighted the project last month in his State of the City speech.

"We have the opportunity to create a new city utility and deliver superior service to our residents," DuBois said.

Having declared their will to expand the fiber network, city officials are now exploring the best way to do so. On April 21, the city's Utilities Advisory Commission dove deep into the latest analysis of the city's fiber prospects and reached a unanimous consensus on the best path forward. The commissioners agreed that the city shouldn't just build the citywide fiber system, it should also serve as the internet service provider. They also agreed that rather than taking a phased approach in which residents in some neighborhoods would get fiber service in the early phase of the expansion while those in other parts of the city would wait for future phases, the city should try to cover the entire city within five years.

Much of the early legwork for the expanded fiber network has already been completed. The city's consulting firm, Magellan Advisors, has designed a system that would add 44 miles of fiber to the existing municipal network. This includes 432-count loose-tube fiber cable that would support various city departments and services (including traffic signals and broadband connection) as well as a 144-count fiber cable to support the electric utility by providing redundancy and supporting grid modernization.

"This becomes a citywide infrastructure that strengthens your ability and capability to be able to govern and empower the community," John Honker, CEO of Magellan, told the commission on April 21.

The initial expansion of the fiber network would cost between $22 million and $28 million, a hefty but not insurmountable sum for a municipal utility that currently has a $30 million enterprise fund. Because this expansion focuses on municipal services rather than homes and businesses, it falls well short of Fiber to the Premise. Yet because the newly installed fiber network would stretch across all neighborhoods, it would enable the city to move ahead with a broader expansion at a future date.

The commission, for its part, made it clear that it wants the expansion of fiber to go well beyond municipal uses. It also agreed that unlike in the past, the city shouldn't depend on private companies for help. Commissioner Greg Scharff, who as a two-time mayor is well acquainted with the council's fruitless struggle to expand the fiber system, suggested that seeking out private partners (an option that was presented by Magellan) would likely be a waste of time.

"In the last 10 years that I've followed Fiber to the Premise, every time we go out and try to do some sort of public-private partnership, either people don't bid or it falls apart," Scharff said. "The more you explore it, the more there is opportunity for delay."

His colleagues largely shared his enthusiasm, even as they acknowledged the risks that the project would necessarily entail. The commission supported Magellan's proposal to conduct a community survey, put together a risk assessment and move ahead with additional engineering work, both for the near-term expansion of the fiber network and for the ultimate build-out of Fiber to the Premise. The commission also directed staff and Magellan to accelerate their community outreach efforts and to issue a survey to gauge customers' willingness to sign up for the new utility.

The firm expects to complete its additional work, as well as the survey, by the end of March 2022. Once that's done, the commission and the council will further refine the fiber proposal and consider funding mechanisms for the broader expansion, which according to Magellan's report is expected to cost more than $90 million.

Despite the high costs and potential risks, the commission enthusiastically supported advancing the fiber effort.

"We've all lived through the last year of COVID-19," Commissioner Loren Smith said. "And if anything, it has certainly highlighted the need for very, very extreme levels of broadband services in our homes, when we ourselves at work online full-time, when our children are online full time.

"Yes, we are getting back to some degree of normalcy, but that is not happening quickly."

Commissioner A.C. Johnston agreed. An upgraded fiber system, he said, would bring significant benefits to the community.

"This is important progress for something that's very important to the community," Johnston said. "And I want to see us keep moving forward."

Comments

AllenPod
Registered user
Community Center
on Apr 28, 2021 at 11:09 am
AllenPod , Community Center
Registered user
on Apr 28, 2021 at 11:09 am

If the full experience of a meeting with a dozen people present could be brought to participants located anywhere in The City, then the need for personal transportation would be greatly reduced. Choirs could remotely practice and perform, interactive company meetings could be held with body language and other subtle signals restored to the meeting experience. This requires fiber bandwidth to the premises to handle multiple video signals with low latency. Start with companies, libraries and schools, then expand from there. This could make Palo Alto very attractive to high tech.


KOhlson
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Apr 28, 2021 at 11:20 am
KOhlson, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Apr 28, 2021 at 11:20 am

A little over a year ago, with my wife and I suffering through simultaneous Zoom sessions on a miserably underpowered Comcast connection, we switched to ATT Fiber. IMHO, it is the utility that everyone needs. Always there. Just works. Never give it another thought. Now, a year later, I get to undergo the joy of wrestling with ATT over their annual increases. This first year, it might be 50%.
So as soon as CPA brings out their own service, I'm there.


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 28, 2021 at 11:52 am
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Apr 28, 2021 at 11:52 am

At the same time, perhaps undergrounding power lines could be done. After all, we need reliable power just as much as we need fast internet. If not more so.


WilliamR
Registered user
another community
on Apr 28, 2021 at 11:53 am
WilliamR, another community
Registered user
on Apr 28, 2021 at 11:53 am

The city of Pittsburg in the East Bay is working on a fiber-optic plan for city communications and services.

Web Link


Palo Alto Green
Registered user
Community Center
on Apr 28, 2021 at 12:01 pm
Palo Alto Green, Community Center
Registered user
on Apr 28, 2021 at 12:01 pm

My AT&T Fiber works great. Will this service be $60 a month or less for 1 GB downstream and upstream? Otherwise, not sure why it's needed.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 28, 2021 at 1:07 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Apr 28, 2021 at 1:07 pm

What makes you think the Palo Alto system will be cheaper than AT&T's? Remember CPAU "overcharges" us $20,000,000 a year -- and has for many years. We even get to pay for the city's appeals from paying us the court-ordered settlement! Such a deal!

AT&T will be shaking in its boots at the competition from a city that can't even supply utilities reliably or cost-effectively.


Turned Off
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 28, 2021 at 1:11 pm
Turned Off, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Apr 28, 2021 at 1:11 pm

Fiber serving residents, FTTP, is long overdue in Palo Alto.

Twenty-five years ago Palo Alto Utilities created City Fiber, serving commercial customers. City Fiber has been hugely successful, so far creating over $30 million in reserves, and counting, to invest in future city fiber.

Glad to see all members of the Utilities Advisory Commission are advising fiber investment steps be taken now to benefit our broader community.

When available, I will instantly sign up for City Fiber.

Comcast and AT&T have played our community as a cash cow for decades. Getting away from them will put money in my pocket and a smile on my face, made possible by fees largely paid by commercial customers of City Fiber.


MidTown Guy
Registered user
Midtown
on Apr 28, 2021 at 1:17 pm
MidTown Guy, Midtown
Registered user
on Apr 28, 2021 at 1:17 pm

Unfulfilled: the promise of under grounding residential utilities! One block over, it’s been done years ago; here, tottering poles staggering under messy lines. What about finishing what you start???


Dick D.
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Apr 28, 2021 at 7:01 pm
Dick D., Crescent Park
Registered user
on Apr 28, 2021 at 7:01 pm

I may be off in the woods somewhere, but isn't this the same Utility crew that "gave us" the power outages and then some more outages. I would argue that "our" utilities group is not competent to provide a technologically challenging, cost effective fiber optic communications facility. They can't handle the relatively simple task of providing us power. Why should we believe they can cost effectively provide service comparable to the readily available commercial offerings. They have very large crews with the needed technical expertise we don't have and can't afford. As one or two of the comments on this topic highlighted the fact that the commercial offering is great . . . so why does our relatively small operation think they're up to it. Why sink our money into something like this when there are so many other things that need be done like beefing up our electrical facilities and the management of those facilities. Let's straighten that out before trying to compete with existing commercial offerings.

We contract out our garbage collection . . . a not too challenging activity.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 28, 2021 at 9:01 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Apr 28, 2021 at 9:01 pm

@Dick D., the very same utility. And the same one that couldn't manage to notify 7,000 customers of outages because that number was so high, To them. Responding to community outrage after those 3 outages several WEEKS or a month later, the head of CPAU sent a very general feel-good email responding to the concerns of "SEVERAL customers' concerns about lousy outreach and suggesting we all sign up for the broad statewide service for fires and other disasters!

If there was an apology for lousy outreach or PA's failed customer response services I missed it the first time and the second time 4 days later when the PAPD mailed it again.


Me 2
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Apr 28, 2021 at 10:02 pm
Me 2, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Apr 28, 2021 at 10:02 pm

"The commission supported Magellan's proposal to conduct a community survey, put together a risk assessment and move ahead with additional engineering work, both for the near-term expansion of the fiber network and for the ultimate build-out of Fiber to the Premise. The commission also directed staff and Magellan to accelerate their community outreach efforts and to issue a survey to gauge customers' willingness to sign up for the new utility."

Jesus - what a money grab by Magellan. Just move forward instead of death by a thousand surveys. Palo Alto government seems to be fine with mandating an electricity-only policy without surveys (which would likely show lack of support) or opening up Foothills over residents' objections, but have no problem commissioning endless surveys and analyses that just push fiber years into the future.

Can't believe they need to survey folks to determine demand. Any idiot can see everyone using broadband.

What a bunch of feckless people.


Longtime Resident
Registered user
Downtown North
on Apr 29, 2021 at 10:00 am
Longtime Resident, Downtown North
Registered user
on Apr 29, 2021 at 10:00 am

Wonder why we Palo Alto residents pay such incredibly high utilities rates? Answer: The City of Palo Alto has its own utilities company. The City is doubling down on bad policy with their fiber boondoggle. The private fiber companies understand the disastrous economics of last mile fiber connections to very small customers and that is why for 10 years of they have wisely refused to participate with the City. From the article, we are told the City wants to spend tens of millions more to run fiber for its own infrastructure – in other words, the only big customer the City of Palo Alto could find for their fiber is themselves.
I have personally dealt with City of Palo Alto fiber, it’s not customer-centric and the pricing in uncompetitive due to the installation costs. The City of Palo Alto based their program on the idea that customers will pay huge fees to connect from their fiber spine in the street to their building – as if there was no other fiber option in the market. However, companies such as AT&T and Comcast are already bringing fiber to businesses in Palo Alto businesses at reasonable rates with little or no installation costs. And for consumers, 5G wireless is around the corner, and will be a more sensible solution than fiber.
The City of Palo Alto is once again spraying good money after bad (the initial ill-fated decision to tear up the streets and install the fiber spine). Will we ever see fiscal responsibility by the City of Palo leadership? The City tab is already $200 million in long term debt, plus $570 million in pension liabilities.


AllenPod
Registered user
Community Center
on Apr 29, 2021 at 3:37 pm
AllenPod , Community Center
Registered user
on Apr 29, 2021 at 3:37 pm

We had the Palo Alto FTTH connection here for a few years. It was virtually flawless service. Flawless.
We need better than 1 GBs service to be ready for the future video-heavy low latency, remote office. Like Zoom, but much better. Everybody is talking about today's needs. We should be talking about the future.
---AND finally, 5G service is wireless, and limited in bandwidth. It requires a fiber optic backbone to do its job well.


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