New Publication: Community Fiber in Washington, D.C., Seattle, and San Francisco

Developments and Lessons Learned

May 28, 2014

Executive Summary

This report provides detailed accounts of planning carried out in connection with community fiber networks in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, CA, and Seattle, WA. It includes information about existing fiber assets that the cities identified, funding mechanisms that were considered, and roadblocks that were encountered. Our hope is that this report will be helpful to other cities that are considering launching fiber optic networks.

Download the report at SSRN

Key Findings

  • The cities profiled in this report have each approached the question of community fiber differently.
  • Washington, D.C. made concessions and arrangements that allowed it to build a robust public-safety-quality fiber network, but limitations on the use of that network have made it unavailable to residents and businesses. Additionally, prices charged non-profits for use of the network are currently too high to be competitive with incumbent products.
  • San Francisco has been highly innovative in expanding fiber to public housing, aggressively leasing dark fiber to community anchor institutions such as libraries and schools, and ensuring free public Wi-Fi, but has not yet cracked the nut of alternative community residential or business fiber access.
  • Seattle has had an extensive city fiber loop in place since 1986, but regulations limiting use of poles and approvals for cabinets have slowed the rollout of competitive last-mile service. Seattle’s recent negative experience with Gigabit Squared (which was unable to execute on its last-mile promises and subsequently vanished from the scene) casts a shadow. Seattle’s current mayor appears to be determined to ameliorate both the regulatory burdens and the information asymmetries that have dogged the city.

via Susan Crawford


Although everyone thinks of high-speed, high-capacity Internet access as a “must have” — a utility — the entire highly-concentrated information-transport industry in the US can set prices and determine the quality of their services at will. With the exception of the 16M households that will have access to (expensive) Verizon FiOS services — and can choose between that service and cable — the rest of the country has vanishingly few choices for high-capacity data transport. And America does not have a plan for making an upgrade to fiber optic connections to homes and businesses.

AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast, who together account for about two-thirds of the trillion dollar enterprise value of this sector, have tremendous scale and scope. And they’re sensible. They’re not about to engage in price wars or unnecessary upgrades. They’re private companies whose perfectly lawful interests do not necessarily align with the public interest in ubiquitous, world-leading, inexpensive, high-capacity, wired transport of data.

As a result, we spend a lot of time waiting around, even though we’re impatient Americans. (Nice video here: Living with Lag.) And we pay a lot – when it comes to high-capacity connections, we pay more per megabyte of data than people do in developed countries other than Mexico, Chile, and Turkey. Most Americans don’t know how much better our data-transport story could be — because they haven’t been to the places around the world where cheap unlimited symmetric communications capacity is taken for granted.

This is a social issue that undermines everything we want to accomplish as a country: response to climate change, better educational outcomes, reduction of inequality, creation of new jobs, creation of greater public trust…

Here’s the good news: Many mayors in America are unwilling to settle for this situation. They’re considering clearing the way for fiber networks to be built by public or private entities that use city conduit, pole access, and other assets. (There are already more than 400 communities across the country with their own networks serving local businesses and/or residents.) See muninetworks.org for information.

Mayors and citizens have a great deal to learn from the experiences of other cities. Today, with many thanks to John Connolly, Melissa Nally, Travis West, and the Roosevelt Institute, the Berkman Center is putting out our new white paper about efforts in Washington, DC, San Francisco, and Seattle to explore competitive fiber. As you’ll read, all three cities are still in the exploration/planning stage, and they have each learned different things along the way. This report adds to the growing pile of case studies in this area (here), including our own report about Leverett MA.

Last updated May 28, 2014