The city has been flirting with the idea of a citywide system since the late 1990s, when it installed a 36-mile "dark fiber" ring capable of delivering fast broadband service to the dozens of commercial customers who use it. Since then, it has conducted a pilot study to gauge whether such a system would be technically feasible for residents (it would) and commissioned a study to see whether residents would be willing to pay for the "last mile" connection (they wouldn't).
It had entered into an agreement with a private Internet consortium in 2008, only to see the deal collapse because of inadequate funding. It also lobbied hard to be selected by Google for the tech giant's "Google Fiber" project, only to see Kansas City, Mo., claim the prize.
But these failures hadn't deterred the city from trying again. So when the City Council's new Technology and the Connected City held its inaugural meeting Tuesday, May 14, the mood among council members was hopeful and optimistic.
With other cities jumping ahead of Palo Alto in creating a citywide network and Palo Alto's fiber fund generating more than $2 million annually, the four council members on the committee agreed that the game has changed since the city's last failure and that it's time to try again.
In the coming weeks and months, staff will be gathering information about other cities that have built fiber networks, including Kansas City, Chattanooga, Tenn., and San Leandro to evaluate next steps for resuscitating Palo Alto's protracted effort.
Two council members, Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd and Councilwoman Liz Kniss, will be taking a trip to Kansas City at the end of the month for a conference on fiber networks. City Manager James Keene will appoint a new citizens committee to work with the city on the newest effort. And the Utilities Advisory Commission, which a year ago voted 4-3 to stop exploring the "fiber to the premise" program, will once again roll up its sleeves and consider ways to make such a network a reality.
The moves reflect the council's new-found appetite for expanding the fiber network, which currently serves around 80 customers. In February, the council unanimously adopted "Technology and the Connected City" as one of its three official priorities for 2013, with fiber generally recognized as the main component of this priority. And later that month, Mayor Greg Scharff appointed the new committee, which includes himself, Shepherd, Kniss and Councilman Larry Klein.
On Tuesday, the new committee recapped the frustrating history of fiber in Palo Alto and unanimously authorized Keene to appoint a group of citizen advisers. The general sentiment among committee members was that this time, things would be different.
"We're restarting a process that's been ongoing now for 15 years in some form or another," said Kniss, who had served on the council in the 1990s and who was a leading advocate of constructing the fiber ring. "This is not groundbreaking. It's continuing and hoping that at this point we will reach a different ending point than we have in the past."
The fiber network has already undergone some changes since the city began to build it in 1996. In 1998, it was stretched from 36 route miles to 41. Since then, it was expanded to new parts of town, including the East Meadow Circle area. It is now in the process of being extended to 18 school facilities, said Jim Fleming, a management specialist in the Utilities Department.
Perhaps most importantly, it's making money. Fleming said the fiber fund now has $14.5 million in reserves and is projected to increase by $2.3 million in fiscal year 2014, which begins July 1. Councilman Larry Klein pointed to this factor as the main difference between the current effort and the city's doomed partnership with the Internet consortium in 2009. At that time, Klein noted, the consortium led by Axia Net Media wanted the city to have a greater financial stake in the $40 million project. The council, meanwhile, was adamant that the fiber network not present a financial risk to the city. Since then, times have changed, Klein said.
"We are continuing to make money at a rate of $2 million to $2.5 million," Klein said. "The financial leverage has really changed dramatically since we had our previous discussions with Axia."
Utilities commissioners voiced a similar sentiment at the Tuesday meeting. Commission Chair James Cook pointed to the commission's 4-3 vote last year to halt exploration of "fiber to the premise" as an indication that it did not have a clear signal from the council to pursue the project. The feeling on the commission, he said, was one of "collective frustration."
"We didn't feel like we had a strong indication from the City Council where to take this," Cook said. "I think that changed a lot from last year. That completely changed."
Utilities Commissioner Asher Waldfogel also pointed to technological changes that have taken place in recent years and argued that the city's commissioned analysis didn't consider the new ways to scale the technology when it concluded that the system is not economically feasible.
"There's been dramatic changes that potentially, pending more analysis and study, make it more feasible today than it would be in some of our view three, four or five years ago," Waldfogel said.