City banks on fiber to transform utilities | June 28, 2019 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - June 28, 2019

City banks on fiber to transform utilities

In a shift from prior vision, city to focus on 'smart meters' and electric operations in expanding fiber-optic ring

by Gennady Sheyner

After nearly 20 years of trying — and failing — to expand the city's fiber-optic ring to connect to every home and business in the city, Palo Alto leaders are now flirting with a new vision for the underground network: using it to launch a transformed and cutting-edge local utilities system.

The vision, which the City Council endorsed Monday night, calls for expanding the existing 48-mile fiber-optic ring and integrating it with the municipal electric network as well as other city-owned utilities. The fiber system would served as a key component for the Utilities Department's long-planned installation of advanced metering infrastructure (commonly known as "smart meters").

With a smart-meter system, the city anticipates a range of benefits, including providing customers with daily information about their utilities usage, improving electric-meter accuracy, cutting staffing costs by eliminating on-site meter reading, detecting water leaks using strategically placed remote devices, identifying when water or electricity is being stolen through meter tampering, and more.

Utilities staff also believe the fiber ring could help encourage customers to switch from natural gas to carbon-free electricity — and the eventual termination of natural gas service altogether. The fiber-optic ring could also help the city build infrastructure for neighborhood blocks — or even entire neighborhoods — that would facilitate the installation of electric-vehicle chargers, according to staff. And it could fortify the Utilities Department's supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, which gather and analyze data in real time to help the utility monitor and regulate its electric, gas and other services.

"For SCADA in particular, fiber is the optimal communication medium because of information security, reliability, transmission speed and bandwidth capacity," a new report from the Information Technology Department states.

The report also makes the case for leveraging the fiber network to support various Smart City initiatives, including traffic management, smart streetlights and parking garage sensors.

The approach represents a sharp break with how the council has historically viewed the expansion of the fiber network: as a risky but transformative opportunity to bring ultra-high-speed internet to every home and business in the city, with no connection to the city's utilities system. Commonly known as "Fiber to the Home" or "Fiber to the Premises," the effort promised to enable movie streaming, video conferencing, intensive cloud computing and even telemedicine, among other uses.

But despite its lofty goals, the project has been under discussion at City Hall for nearly two decades, with little to show aside from a library of obsolete studies.

Palo Alto came closest to accomplishing the initial vision in 2008, when the council struck a deal with a consortium of companies led by Canadian firm Axia Net Media Corporation. The consortium pulled out of the agreement in March 2009, citing "deteriorating" economic conditions and the city's unwillingness to contribute up to $5 million in annual funds for the project.

Some in the community and on council remain hopeful that the vision can still be realized. Councilwoman Liz Kniss, who was also on the council in the late 1990s when it began considering expanding its then-new fiber network, noted on Monday that the project has been under consideration for more years than she'd care to admit.

"We have this nice cushion," she said, referring to the fiber ring, which generates about $2 million in annual revenues from the city. "But we've certainly worked a long time to make something happen, especially with Fiber to the Home. ... My goal is really to, at some point in my lifetime, get Fiber to the Home."

Jeff Hoel, a resident who has long advocated for Fiber to the Home, shares her sentiment about wanting to see the fiber expansion. Unlike Kniss, however, Hoel argued on Monday that the staff's approach of integrating utilities is a mistake that would, in fact, impede the type of fiber expansion that he and others have long hoped for.

Hoel likened the staff's approach to spending about $15 million without getting anything of value. Some of the uses that staff is proposing — including expanding fiber as part of the undergrounding of local utilities and as part of the effort to get customers to ditch natural gas in favor of electricity — effectively tethers the fiber project to unrelated efforts that could take decades to develop, he argued.

The council, for its part, embraced staff's new utility-focused approach, which in some ways is already being implemented (the city's recently completed "Upgrade Downtown" project, which included replacement of aged gas and water mains, added a fiber conduit on University Avenue).

Councilman Tom DuBois made the motion to support the staff proposal, though he also said he would like to see the city accelerate the future phase, which would bring fiber to businesses and residences.

With its vote, the council authorized staff to issue a request for proposals for yet another study — this time with a focus on using fiber in conjunction with smart meters, SCADA systems and wireless communication for city staff. The consulting firm would also create a business plan for future fiber services, including the Smart City programs, Fiber to the Node (the expansion of the ring into neighborhood hubs) and, ultimately Fiber to the Premises (the "last mile" extension between the node and the home).

Mayor Eric Filseth called the staff's phased approach "pragmatic," even as he alluded to the typically short shelf life of prior business plans.

"If you build a detailed case for FTTP today, pretty good chance it will be obsolete by the time it comes to actually building it because there's still technology changing," Filseth said.

TALK ABOUT IT

What's your take on the direction the city's taking to integrate its fiber-optic ring with its utilities system? Give your opinions and hear others' on Town Square, the community discussion forum at PaloAltoOnline.com/square.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

Comments

9 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 25, 2019 at 6:53 pm

The cost of fiber to support smart meters will run in the tens of millions. Wireless, on the other hand, would provide the connectivity needed to link these meters to the Utilities. Wireless, on the other hand, would cost only a fraction of the cost that fiber will cost. There certainly is no reason to run a terabit connection to a home to upload the meter readings.

Clearly, those promoting the failed effort to kick the cable and telephone companies out of town have managed to convinced an otherwise clueless council that spending the 60-odd million that has been estimated in the past is a better use of public money that the hundreds of thousands that would be needed to provide a wireless solution.

Guess the absurd decision to effectively hobble wireless technology in Palo Alto now comes into the sunlight. By restricting the number of wireless transceivers in town--then this is a silent justification for this massive, unnecessary expenditure.

5G will soon be available. "Tech companies are promising a lot from 5G. While 4G tops out at a theoretical 100 megabits per second (Mbps), 5G tops out at 10 gigabits per second (Gbps). That means 5G is a hundred times faster than the current 4G technology—at its theoretical maximum speed, anyway." (From howtogeek.com website)

While 5G is not as fast as fiber--how many homes will be needing more than 5G of download speed?


5 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 25, 2019 at 10:01 pm

"If you install fiber that goes where the smart meters are, that doesn't put it where FTTP needs to go," Hoel told the council."

OK. Put in the smart meter infrastructure and keep FTT? separate. Else you get a deadly embrace between the two and nothing gets built.


"It's like saying, 'Let's start building a house but before we design the plans for the house, let's start hammering nails to studs.'" Tanaka said. "It seems like we should have plans for the house first."

Typically, Tanaka got himself wrapped around his own axle again. The guy is incapable of following a discussion.


12 people like this
Posted by Dan
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 25, 2019 at 10:42 pm

In the age that even Google is giving up on fiber, we want to renew a decade old project just to install the decade(s) old technology? 5G is here! Stop wasting public $!


7 people like this
Posted by 5G
a resident of Green Acres
on Jun 26, 2019 at 8:10 am

The curious thing about 5G is it is entirely reliant on fiber to backhaul all that data. The way it is designed, much of the 5G will bypass the old cell towers and use a variety of small transmitters, including your router and other devices at local businesses, as well as your local internet service to carry traffic in your neighborhood. So one way or another, you are paying for fiber. The only choice is whether you pay Palo Alto, ATT or Comcast.


11 people like this
Posted by Vafer
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 26, 2019 at 11:31 am

Vafer is a registered user.

5G is nice, but it's not fiber. I want fiber. I want to kick Comcast to the curb. Worst company ever. Don't let 5G's promise undermine fiber!

If Chattanooga TN can pony up for their own fiber, why can't Silicon Valley / Palo Alto make it happen?
Web Link

And they aren't alone! Web Link


7 people like this
Posted by Vafer
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 26, 2019 at 11:32 am

Vafer is a registered user.

If Chattanooga TN can pony up for their own fiber, why can't Silicon Valley / Palo Alto make it happen?
Web Link

And they aren't alone! Web Link


5 people like this
Posted by Security
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 26, 2019 at 12:30 pm

Building a smart city smart grid on city owned fiber has huge benefits. This will be secure (no wireless transmissions), reliable (no wireless transmissions) and future proof. It's a great way for the city to build out a fiber network that will hopefully be available for residents one day - saying us all collectively millions of dollars that we currently overpay for the bandwidth we get from Comcast.

And yes, Tanaka says something factually incorrect in nearly every council meeting. The plan was clear but he refuses to acknowledge it


4 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 26, 2019 at 12:55 pm

> “I want to kick Comcast to the curb”

This sentiment has been much of the reasoning for Palo Alto offering telephone and television services—which it has no reason to do. When the City awarded the cable franchise to a local group that had no knowledge of running a business but believed in “democracy” as the basis of the cable service, it wasn’t that long before disaster followed. If the City were to follow the path proposed, it’s only a matter of time before a similar disaster will happen here. There is little evidence that Comcast has failed to provide reliable Internet and telephone service to Palo Alto.

Remember that Alameda got into the cable business after the 1996 deregulation of telecommunications:

Web Link

"People who voted for the 1998 proposition say they distinctly remember proponents swearing that an economic "firewall" would separate the fledgling cable start-up from the financially flush Bureau of Electricity, which traces its roots back to 1886. Voters were told that the telecom project would be financed with funds from bond sales and that the project would quickly pay for itself in just a few years.

As it turned out, he and City Auditor Kevin Kearney were the only public officials to speak out on what many believe will be the biggest finance debacle in Alameda's 154-year incorporated history. Sometime before the end of this year, the city may write the final chapter in the history of the utility's troubled cable and Internet division, likely by selling the system and in the process losing close to $80 million in ratepayer and taxpayer money."

The following link lists the top 14 Internet providers in Alameda today:

Web Link

The private sector seems to be doing what the city could not.

As to Chattanooga’s offering a high-speed fiber system, there is virtually no similarity between that city and Palo Alto. Chattanooga has a population about three times that of Palo Alto. The median income for a household in the city is about $36,000, whereas households in Palo Alto have a median annual income of about $147,500. Clearly, Silicon Valley offers far more to tech companies than Chattanooga. While offering fiber might be a good idea in a city that needs to offer more than cheap labor to attract new businesses, Palo Alto businesses already have access to as much telecommunications as they are willing to pay for. The Silicon Valley is here -- not there!

Businesses are not clamoring for cheap Internet in this town – they are clamoring for cheap housing.

Pushing a fiber system onto Palo Alto rate payers will only push up the cost of utilities, which are spiraling out of control now.

This is another bad idea that will not end well for the utility customers.


3 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 26, 2019 at 5:27 pm

The municipal fiber option has morphed from a nominal rational analysis into a total emotional competition with Chattanooga. Gee whiz, we're never gonna be a big tech center like Chattanooga unless our city hall makes us a fiber network like they got.


9 people like this
Posted by trialcritic
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 29, 2019 at 5:50 am

trialcritic is a registered user.

I see a lot of people are pointing to 5G as sufficient. While 5G gives download speeds, it doesn't give upload. Fiber gives symmetric download and upload speeds.

I am surprised that we cannot get Fiber in Palo Alto.


2 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 29, 2019 at 2:48 pm

Certain aspects of the proposal are not very well defined, so, while things are in the preliminary stage, I have one request:

Make the installation completely upgradeable. Specifically, make sure that ducts, raceways, &etc, can accommodate plenty of fiber from different sources, because, what actually happens over time is that multiple providers want to use the same paths, as well as providers needing to replace older fiber over time. If ducts are installed that allow new fiber to be installed and old fiber to be removed, you have a "permanent" (as much as such things are) installation. Any single-fiber-pair installation done "once" will be obsolete in 10 years. It has to be able to evolve, or it will be a waste of money.


2 people like this
Posted by Bill
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jun 30, 2019 at 3:26 pm

Lets make this clear. We are facing the right direction, except staff (and now council) insists we walk with our hands instead of of our feet. This is not only slower, but also an extremely roundabout way of doing FTTP. For heavens sake. If you want FTTP, do it. Don't do it in the way that takes WAYYY too long.


2 people like this
Posted by Lydia
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 30, 2019 at 4:21 pm

@trailcritic... please explain “Fiber gives symmetric download and upload speeds.“ Thank you.


2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 30, 2019 at 5:40 pm

" staff (and now council) insists we walk with our hands instead of of our feet."

No, it's AT&T and Comcast keeping you acrobatic. They have the wherewithal to install fiber and the knowledge to operate it. What they lack is a business justification to do it. And I don't see any good reason the city government should risk the funds of all taxpayers for the benefit of a minority.

"@trailcritic... please explain “Fiber gives symmetric download and upload speeds.“ Thank you."

"Symmetric" means you can upload data at the same speed you download it. Normal consumer internet channels are asymmetric--they download at much higher speeds than they upload, because retail users typically upload much less data than they download. That optimizes system capacity.

Symmetry is of dubious usefulness for 90% of potential users, whose major fiber application will be to download premium Netflix content or the like. Almost nobody would upload streaming HDTV.


2 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 30, 2019 at 5:52 pm

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North

>> Symmetry is of dubious usefulness for 90% of potential users, whose major fiber application will be to download premium Netflix content or the like. Almost nobody would upload streaming HDTV.

Hey, we all had this same conversation recently. Here we go again. My in-depth research (30 seconds on the web) uncovered what may become the killer app: high-res/high-framerate video surveillance security systems.


Like this comment
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 30, 2019 at 6:15 pm

" high-res/high-framerate video surveillance security systems."

Yes indeed. The city absolutely must spend bookoo millions of dollars so people can remotely watch continuous high-definition video streams from their home security cameras. How could I overlook that?

Here's what you do. Buy motion-detecting cams. They're well-proven technology and inexpensive. Program them to send you compressed video and an alarm when there's something interesting to view. It works well on my DSL. And it has side benefits. You will be much more productive on your job if you're not staring at your security cam feed every second of every day, and you will enjoy your vacations more, too.


Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 30, 2019 at 7:26 pm

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North

>> Yes indeed. The city absolutely must spend bookoo millions of dollars so people can remotely watch continuous high-definition video streams from their home security cameras. How could I overlook that?

>> You will be much more productive on your job if you're not staring at your security cam feed every second of every day, and you will enjoy your vacations more, too.

Here's the scenario: you just returned from your two week BC/Alaska glacier cruise on a ship getting around 20 passenger-miles per gallon. You decided to go on this trip because you wanted to visit one of the "few cold places left on the planet" (you told your friends). In the meantime, your HS-age daughter was at coding camp, and your middle school son at "Calculus for 7th graders" camp. When you return to your Crescent Park home, after seeing the melting glaciers, you notice that your son's 4K res video game system was missing from the family room. You immediately suspect people infiltrating across the Newell Rd bridge, but, you check your 10-channel 4K video surveillance system first. Of course, when on vacation, you always stream 24x7 to your cloud provider for safekeeping. What if a thief stole your security controller? You immediately realize your son's friend (your son showed him the necessary security codes to get in) had taken the game system. You call the kid's parents. The kid claims he was going to call and tell you as soon as he knew you were back. You ask why he was wearing a ski mask. Good thing you were able to stream all that high-res video into the cloud-- that kid has unique custom basketball shoes. All's well that ends well.

Most of this stuff is already out there in one form or another, it is just limited by the uplink bandwidth available: Web Link

Does it make sense for the city to invest hard-earned dollars on it? No comment.

But, City of Palo Alto: IF you are going to build such as system, THEN, please make it fully, incrementally upgradeable, or it will be obsolete by the time you are finished.



Like this comment
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 30, 2019 at 10:27 pm

"Here's the scenario: you just returned from your two week BC/Alaska glacier cruise on a ship getting around 20 passenger-miles per gallon. Etc., etc., etc."

I'm not sure what the fuel efficiency of cruise ships has to do with the necessity for city-owned fiber in Palo Alto, but you go with the argument you got, I suppose.

Here's what you do. Buy motion-detecting cams. They're well-proven technology and inexpensive. Program them to send compressed video and an alarm to your cloud when there's something happening. It works well on my DSL.

You can check these cams out at Fry's while it still exists.


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