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The New Broadband Wars

Angling to corner the emerging fiber-optic market in a rusty-pipe city.


San Francisco may enjoy a reputation as a high-tech Valhalla, but in truth, the city’s cyber pipes, an aging bundle of copper and cable, have reached the physical limits of their bandwidth. At long last, this swath of Internet infrastructure is starting to give way to the long-hyped fiber-optic network.

Just how fast is this promised network? About 30 times faster than your cable connection, maybe more. With a gigabit per second of download speed at your fingertips, that means you could stream 40 ultra-high-def Netflix shows simultaneously. Now, is that entirely necessary? Perhaps not—yet. But as 4K video streaming becomes the norm, the need for a better pipeline is going to be more and more apparent.

A gaggle of competitors are starting to duke it out for this new market, but this is a battle that’s being waged slowly, city block by city block. It will be a while before there’s a victor—or even a frontrunner. For now, let’s take a look at the combatants:

The block-by-block upstart: Sonic, $40/month
The Santa Rosa–based company has been quietly expanding its network, and the service is incredibly fast and cheap—so long as you live in the right place. Sonic’s $40-a-month gigabit package is available almost exclusively in the Richmond and Sunset districts—and even there, only on certain blocks. The company started building its network in those neighborhoods so it could string fiber cables via the avenues’ plentiful telephone poles, rather than digging up concrete to lay trenches downtown. We know that can work: Sonic has wired Brentwood and Sebastopol, meaning smaller towns in the burbs have better, faster Internet than San Francisco. Sonic gets a strong grade on privacy, too, as the company deletes its user logs every two weeks.

The unwieldy behemoth: Comcast, $299/month
First things first: Comcast is expensive. Like $299-a-month expensive. For that hefty sum, customers get a whopping two gigabits (about 60 times faster than typical broadband). But the fine print is unsettling: The Wi-Fi router that comes with the product is capable of delivering only about one-third of that speed, so anything you connect wirelessly is getting just a fraction of that Cadillac connection. Comcast has other drawbacks, too. The installation process will make you miss the 9 a.m.-to-5 p.m. appointment windows of yore: The company first has to send a technician to survey your site and may need to obtain a permit before digging a trench to lay its fiber cables.

Private eyes are watching you: AT&T, $70/month
The telecom kingpin is still in the early stages of its entry into the hyper-fast-Internet game. So far, AT&T is providing its fiber network to only about 20 properties in San Francisco. The service is priced at a relatively affordable (but not exactly cheap) $70 a month, but where the AT&T offering falls down is privacy: The company charges an extra $29 a month to opt out of “ad-supported” browsing—a feature some other companies offer for free—meaning that unless you pony up, your browsing habits are likely for sale.

Fiddling with the roof: Monkeybrains, cost unknown
This Mission district–based provider has been offering Internet to San Franciscans since dial-up connections were all the rage. Its take on gigabit-speed access is a bit different, though. It recently offered a promotion that used a millimeter microwave dish (that cost—no joke—$2,500 to install, plus $35 a month) to beam data across town at about half the speed of fiber. Though the microwave promotion is currently suspended, Monkeybrains says it’s exploring building a fiber network—but doesn’t yet have firm plans. As for privacy, Monkeybrains is ahead of the curve: Its system self-deletes its logs regularly, execs say. 

Search giant phones home: Google, cost unknown
The announcement in February that Google was entering San Francisco’s fiber market generated lots of buzz. But so far, nobody knows how it’ll do it (though the company's recent acquisition of S.F.-based ISP Webpass is a start). One way is to use the city’s dormant fiber network, but there’s no deal for that in place yet. Another idea—one that executives expressed at a recent shareholder meeting—is to use wireless tech to deliver gigabit-per-second speed, getting rid of the need for cables altogether. Google’s been tight-lipped on pricing, but in Atlanta and Austin, its fiber service has run $70 a month. It’s worth noting that Google has promised to bring cheap or even free Internet to some low-income households, making it one of only a few providers addressing the roughly 12 percent of city residents without an Internet connection. But don’t expect anything soon. One industry expert told us Google Fiber is at least two years away.


Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco

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