Xbout two dozen Palo Alto households plugged into the Internet using a high-speed fiber-optic connection this week, marking the launch of the city's long-awaited fiber-to-the-home trial.
Based in the Community Center neighborhood and scheduled to run for about a year, the trial calls for 70 homes to receive Internet, phone and video service via the 29-mile fiber-optic loop built by the city for business use in 1997.
As their connections came online, participants said they were pleased with the quality of service. Although not yet running at full capacity, the system nonetheless achieved data speeds similar to those of DSL lines and cable modems, or about 1 megabit per second (Mbps). Optical fiber, which carries data as light pulses, supports upload speeds of 4.5 Mbps and download speeds of 7 Mbps.
Allen Podell, a resident of Harker Avenue and the third person connected, said that although his fiber connection has not yet exceeded the speed of his former broadband wireless connection, it presents an important advantage, in that data transmission does not slow during peak periods as it did with wireless.
"It's a little early in the game to say that this is better than sliced bread, although my expectation is that it will be a lot better than sliced bread," Podell said.
Like the other trial members, he will be seeking ways to use the increased capacity available through a fiber connection. In addition to providing high-quality teleconferencing for his consulting business, he hopes the system will allow him to access all the materials available through the Main Library's fiber-optic connection.
Blake Heitzman, the city's acting telecom manager, expects the remaining trial connections to be completed within a few weeks. City utility workers have laid the fiber connecting homes to the loop. Marconi Networks, the city's network contractor for the project, will finish installing "head in" equipment -- boxes that convert light into data at the participants' homes -- and begin configuring it for phone service Tuesday.
Heitzman did not know when participants would receive video service, owing to legal questions arising from the city's prior video franchise agreement with AT&T, which substantially dictates the conditions of the fiber-to-the-home video trial. He hopes to present a solution to the matter to the City Council within the next few weeks.
Creating what could become a blueprint for Palo Alto's fifth utility, Heitzman will present an evaluation of the project to the Utilities Advisory Commission and the council in March or April. It will include a business case analysis with a cost model and pricing scheme and will seek to answer whether fiber-to-the-home is viable for deployment across the city.
Palo Alto is paying $600,000 for the trial, including the cost of laying the fiber-optic connections to individual homes. Participants will probably pay a monthly fee of about $85, although the amount has yet to be finalized by the city.
Given the results of tests prior to the full-scale trial, Heitzman believes that technical success is a virtual certainty. For him, the true question is whether a citywide fiber-to-the-home system will be financially feasible.
"To me, we will have achieved success if we can definitively determine whether or not we can do this economically on a large scale now. A negative answer is as good as a positive answer; I'm not looking for the answer that tells me to build," Heitzman said, adding, "If it's a 'no' answer, I'd like to know when I can go back and look again."
If his neighbors' reactions are any indication, Marvin Lee -- a trial participant and long-time proponent of the fiber project -- believes that demand for the high-speed system exists.
"I had two guys who are outside the trial area come by the house this morning and say, 'Let me see it, I've got a business on Embarcadero, how do I get in," Lee said. "If it put this system in place, I think the city would be inundated with requests from people."
E-mail Pam Sturner at [email protected]