Webpass Letter to SF Chronicle

February 1, 2016

Dear Emily,
My company Webpass is working on a new piece of legislation in San Francisco, which we hope you will consider writing about. My boss Charles Barr contacted Lizzie Johnson about this too.

Webpass wants to disrupt the internet market and the AT&T/Comcast stranglehold in San Francisco. We’re proposing an internet franchise ordinance which would be the first of it’s kind anywhere in the US to create a functioning marketplace of ISP options in the city.

Everyone knows we have terrible internet compared to the rest of the industrialized world, and we all know what would fix it, a competitive market. The internet franchise would open the San Francisco market to competition. It is a radical, local solution to the internet logjam, and we believe it could be used as a national model, if the political will is there.

This legislation would be the SpaceX of internet policy. The new policy would threaten the business model of the incumbents, and we expect massive pushback. Just look at what's happening to cities who want to do muni networks.

Cities are searching for quick fixes like citywide wifi, dig-once policies, microtrenching, or muni networks, but these are largely partial and short-term solutions. The franchise is a comprehensive, long term approach that addresses the structural barriers we face. (See details below.)

The ordinance would declare internet service a public utility in San Francisco and would require developers and property owners to include internet-grade cabling in their buildings, just as they must include electric wiring.

The ordinance would give tenants a real choice of internet services. It would require landlords to give any internet company with a city franchise access to tenants, and it would ban exclusionary practices. It would also strengthen competitors’ access to poles and conduit. (See the attached overview.)

Webpass requests for service that we cannot fulfill due to lack of internet-grade infrastructure or landlord permission generally track to lower-income neighborhoods, so we see this as an issue of equity and social justice, as well as tenants’ rights.

A San Francisco Code for America project is trying to bridge the connectivity gap with a program called LocalFreeWeb, but most of the locations in the database are for our wonderful public libraries, who themselves rely on local incumbents Comcast and AT&T.

Independents can compete with the goliaths. In a 2014 New America study of 24 world cities, San Francisco made it into the top 20 only because of Webpass. We are the fastest internet in San Francisco, as measured on speedtest.net, and as of year-end, we had a full five-star rating from 473 reviewers on Yelp, of a total of 618.

We can’t compare prices offered within the city, because the FCC and the CPUC don’t require telecommunications providers to submit comparable pricing information. We can’t compare outage performance because the FCC shares its carrier outage data only with Homeland Security and with states who successfully petition.

I think there would be huge public support for this if our elected officials were to take this up, but I also think a lot of people have just given up thinking there’s any other way and are resigned to the status quo.

Regards,
Lauren Saine, Webpass, Inc. Regulatory Affairs

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Here are some specifics about the roadblocks independent, competitive internet companies like us are facing:

We have permission to access their conduit, but AT&T is denying us permission to install splice cases in the manholes even if there is room. We can’t build a fiber network without splice cases. Installing a manhole next to an AT&T manhole is possible but very expensive ($10,000 to $25,000) and takes on a whole new permitting process. We would need a new manhole every two or three blocks. We’ll protest this, but the whole point is to delay us and raise our costs.

Another barrier is incumbents’ agreements with developers to install fiber to each unit at no cost to the developer. For a building with 800 units, the dollars saved could total more than $1 million. In these agreements, AT&T installs fiber using proprietary racks and ducting systems, which means competitors cannot build in without ripping up the walls to each unit.

We’ve also run into kickback schemes like New York City has. We’ve been told “And what portion of the $55 [monthly rate] would go to us, the owners?” and “property manager...said that there was some ‘rebate’ that was going to the building owner and that Comcast and AT&T were paying something back to the management company.”

The federal government is backtracking on open internet rules, and California’s public utilities commission is not effectively enforcing the rules we have. The political will is just not there. Just look at Governor Brown’s vetoes of six CPUC reform bills last session.