Santa Monica’s status as a technology hub is no accident.

It’s a result of careful planning by the city over the past 20 years to install an inexpensive fiber network that allows businesses to transfer massive amounts of data in mere seconds.

Susan Crawford, a Harvard Law School professor and Santa Monica High School alumna who also served as President Barack Obama’s technology advisor, writes in her book Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution—and Why America Might Miss It (Yale University Press) that other cities have a lot to learn from Santa Monica’s investment in its fiber infrastructure. The book is on sale Jan. 8.

Fiber transmits data using light rather than electricity, which makes it hundreds of times faster than cable internet. The technology is becoming spreading to cities around the world, including Seoul, Tokyo and Hong Kong, allowing people to access cheap, extremely fast internet.

Santa Monica was ahead of its time. While fiber connects cities in the United States, only a quarter of American households can directly access a fiber network. And because of the monopoly the five main cable companies have on the telecommunications industry, Crawford writes, it could stay that way.

20 states have made it difficult or impossible for cities to intervene in fiber access, but California is not one of them. That allowed Jory Wolf, the City of Santa Monica’s chief information officer, to create a telecommunications master plan in 1998 that “put him in the room whenever a public works official was considering tearing up a street” to make sure the City installed fiber, Crawford writes in Fiber.

“It took his individual patience with this issue and ability to persuade successive mayors and City Councils that it was important,” Crawford said in an interview with the Daily Press. “As a result, Santa Monica remains very relevant as a place for entertainment and tech. Anyone dealing with very large files needs a fiber connection to their business.”

Other American cities could follow Santa Monica’s example and reap benefits far beyond creating a better business environment.

Crawford said more low-income people could access the internet because municipal fiber would be significantly cheaper than purchasing internet from cable companies. Fiber would also make downloads almost instantaneous and allow people on video conferences to be able to make eye contact in real time, making virtual doctors visits and classroom participation viable.

The problem is, she said, is that cable companies have been politically proactive in fighting cities that have tried to build fiber networks. Comcast sued the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee in 2008 when the city tried to build its own fiber network. (It won the lawsuit and has since built a successful network.)

Crawford likens this era to the period around the turn of the century when electricity provided by private companies only reached wealthy areas. Despite attacks from electricity companies, most states were able to create state-level commissions to oversee utilities by 1914.

A similar transition is needed today, Crawford argues. Internet now is as essential to life as electricity: inadequate connectivity prevents people from accessing economic opportunities, healthcare and education, and hinders business development, she writes in Fiber.

While installing fiber is expensive, Crawford said labor (i.e. paying construction workers to tear up streets) comprises 80 percent of the cost of building a network. Like Santa Monica, cities could simply install fiber whenever a street is already undergoing construction.

“All it would take to roll out fiber to homes and businesses is political will,” she said.

Today, Santa Monica’s CityNet provides free public Wi-Fi in tourist destinations and real-time data for apps that help people finding parking, Crawford writes.

The City has also connected ten of its affordable housing buildings to fiber since 2015 with $175,000 in initial funding. An additional federal grant of $1.85 million will bring fiber to 29 more buildings in the next few years, providing more than 900 low-income families with either free Gigabit broadband in their community room or service in their units for $48 per month.

Both local and federal policymakers have the obligation to take on the cable companies and pave the way for other cities to follow Santa Monica’s lead, Crawford said.

“I don’t like to see people being bossed around, and the whole country is being bossed around by five companies with no competition or oversight, so they can charge whatever they want for subpar service,” she said. “I was pleased my hometown had taken this issue on so deliberately for so many years and is doing it so well.”

 

madeleine@smdp.com

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