San Francisco needs connectivity. Can this man deliver it?

If you are a city CIO, you need a plan. Santa Monica did it. So why not our tech capital?


Miguel Gamiño, San Francisco’s energetic Chief Information Officer, speaks quickly and has a lot on his mind. Gamiño wears two hats: As San Francisco’s CIO, he is charged with advising Mayor Ed Lee and the city’s Board of Supervisors about the ever-evolving tech landscape and how the city should be using technology to improve city services and community engagement; as the Executive Director of the city’s Department of Technology, he’s responsible for delivering on that strategy.

That covers a lot of ground. Yet he knows that success requires substantial progress on a single issue. That’s why he’s laser-focused on Internet connectivity as the foundational layer for responsive cities. In his words, “Connectivity is the concrete slab that you build a building on.”

If all San Franciscans had reasonably-priced high-capacity access from home, and a cloud of free public WiFi blanketed the city, then that same network could be easily used to connect residents to city services — particularly to Mayor Lee’s “crown jewels” of municipal services: affordable housing, education, public transportation, and public safety. Then there can be a back-and-forth between residents and the city aimed at getting those services where they’re needed, when they’re needed, in the most effective way. As Gamiño puts it, “Forward-looking, anticipatory, responsive methods of delivering these city services are going to depend more and more on having connectivity in places where you wouldn’t necessarily expect it.”

These unexpected places will need to include neighborhoods where private-sector carriers may not see an economic reason to build out services or sell them at a reasonable cost. About a fifth of San Francisco households don’t have a wire at home, and $35-$50 for wired high-speed Internet access in San Francisco buys speeds that are about a tenth of those available in Seoul and Tokyo for the same price.

In order to realize Gamiño’s vision, San Francisco needs a long-term plan for connectivity. Fortunately, a model exists in his own state of California, 380 miles south of the City by the Bay, in the beachfront city of Santa Monica.

Santa Monica’s champion CIO Jory Wolf has been steadily implementing a long-term plan that was first put in motion in 1998, when the city methodically began laying fiber optic cables. Savings realized from the city’s rollout of its own fiber serving municipal buildings have been ploughed into a fiber service for commercial buildings, and soon the 90,000 citizens of this seaside city will be served by very-high-capacity, inexpensive city fiber in their homes. Meanwhile, the city is making millions from selling its 100 Gbps fiber services to businesses at very reasonable rates.

Wolf, who has been with the City of Santa Monica for nearly thirty-five years, has often said that his city’s key differentiator was its adoption of a Telecommunications Master Plan in 1998; the city decided what its destiny would be and moved steadily ahead.

Now Gamiño and his colleagues across San Francisco city government are launching just this kind of long-term plan. (Jay Nath, the city’s first Chief Innovation Officer, Chanda Ikeda, the director of the city’s IT governance body, and Brian Roberts, the lead policy analyst in the city’s Department of Technology, all work closely with Gamiño. And, no, it’s not the same Brian Roberts who runs Comcast.) They’ve released the city’s first Connectivity Plan as a key subset of a new five-year overall technology plan. As Mayor Lee explains, “The Connectivity Plan is the city’s first step in developing a strategy to help narrow the digital divide and support the next generation of job creators. As the innovation capital of the world we have a tremendous opportunity to lead this conversation and have a real impact.”

It’s incremental in nature, it’s awaiting approval from the City’s Board of Supervisors, and it’s an inspiring first step. Lots of slow and steady work lies ahead.

Since 2002, San Francisco has been building an extensive 170-mile fiber network now used by city buildings, hospitals and other municipal services. The city’s top priority is to connect 178 additional city buildings to that fiber network — 231 are already connected — so that it is not dependent on expensive or under-performing circuit-based services. Right now, the city pays about $1.3 million every year for Internet access and networking services; when this fiber connects more of its buildings, that cost can be avoided.

Next, former Board of Supervisors President David Chiu made sure that a city ordinance was put in place as of late 2014 requiring that every time a length of city street is opened up extra conduit for the city’s use must be installed — a so-called “dig once” policy. Gamiño and his colleagues are developing the standards and rules that will implement that ordinance, and plan for this resource to be available later this year.

Third, the city is planning to lease out its dark fiber assets (passive strands of glass without electronics attached) in a way that makes them more easily available to competitive ISPs and businesses; a standard, transparent interface is planned for later in 2015, so that a company has a clear path for requesting dark fiber. (Even now, although the leasing process isn’t nearly as obvious as it could be, the city makes about $279,000 every year leasing dark fiber.) A sign of progress: the city is working with ISPs to ensure that new residential and business developments have greater choice in high-speed Internet access by linking these new neighborhoods to Internet hubs with dark fiber.

And, perhaps most importantly, the city is working towards having public WiFi available across the metro area under a single public WiFi brand: #SFWiFi. Already thirty-two parks and all of Market Street are covered by this WiFi service. Next to come: public housing projects and more commercial corridors.

Gamiño’s dream is that San Franciscans and visitors will be connected to that service at all times: “I would love for people to come here, or live here, and feel as if they are just connected, woven into this fabric that exists in thin air,” he says. Consolidating the brand so that every public open network is labeled #SFWiFi will ensure that users perceive the city’s role in providing public WiFi. (The city is focused on personal privacy: According to Gamiño, the public WiFi network intentionally ignores any personal or uniquely identifying data; it measures only number of sessions and bandwidth consumption.)

Gamiño is seeking a public/private partnership to make sure his dream of ubiquitous WiFi comes true. Google gave the city a no-strings-attached gift of a little over $600,000 in 2014 that contributed to delivering the #SFWiFi service to 32 parks. Ruckus donated equipment for Market Street. Perhaps another company will come forward; there is brand advantage to be had on both sides.

In the bigger picture, San Francisco will require fiber to businesses and homes. You can’t have a WiFi connection without a wire — that would be like having an airplane but no airports. And the WiFi connections used by both citizens and city infrastructure (“phoning home” via sensors about weather, water, air pollution, transport, energy use, and a host of other indicators of the city’s wellbeing) will be generating — uploading — mountains of data that will need wires on which to travel anywhere at all.

Only fiber connections will be able to handle this tsunami of data at a reasonable cost; uploads via cable are compressed and treated like luxury goods. Fiber is future-proof, as far as we can tell, with potentially unlimited capacity to move around data so that it can be understood, visualized, and harnessed. And once it’s installed fiber will form the “concrete slab” San Francisco is building in support of its responsiveness to citizen needs, concerns, and desires.

Fiber and WiFi are complementary, in other words. And that’s where long-term planning will be essential.

San Francisco isn’t starting from scratch. The quest for ubiquitous, inexpensive fiber-to-the-home in San Francisco already has a long history. Community groups have been rallying for fiber for years. Part of the city’s municipal fiber network passed near public housing projects — as a result, the city was able to enter a 2008 partnership with the housing authority to bring free Internet access to the city’s public housing units, using city fiber, wireless bridges and a donation of bulk Internet access from the Internet Archive. This was a no-brainer incremental step

But the 2007 failure of a much-hyped city partnership with Google and Earthlink for a city-wide WiFi network still haunts the political scene. At the time, inexperience on all sides likely accounted for the collapse of the project; no one was up to the job of accounting for the number of hotspots and the amount of backhaul that would be necessary for a WiFi network to serve San Francisco’s data-hungry citizens in their homes and businesses.

Today, dozens of U.S. cities are moving to fiber, following the trailblazing efforts of cities like Santa Monica, Chattanooga, TN, Wilson, NC, Lafayette, LA, Ammon, ID and elsewhere. Next Century Cities, a new initiative helping these cities learn from one another, is making progress: in one sign of how important fiber networks have become, the FCC recently moved to preempt state laws that remove the choice from cities of whether or not to pursue fiber installations. Everyone knows more now about city networks than they did just a few years ago.

Mayor Lee, CIO Miguel Gamiño, and the rest of the city team have now put forth San Francisco’s very first Connectivity Plan — a major step for the city. Gamiño is justly proud of the many elements that he and his team have pulled together in the Connectivity Plan, and he makes clear that the Plan is “a little conservative for the purposes of being responsible.” He also says that San Francisco “will continue to be aggressive.”

Now San Francisco, our nation’s gleaming, high-tech city by the bay, can lead along with the other U.S. cities that are figuring out how to best implement fiber/WiFi networks that serve all citizens. Municipal infrastructure planning is the root canal of tech policy: it’s painful, it takes a long time, and it’s incremental. Mayor Lee’s team is bravely taking up the task.

If San Francisco can’t do it, who can? (Besides Santa Monica.)

Cover photo by Todd Lappin | Flickr
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