People gather neighbors to build their own fiber-optic networks

A group of Los Altos Hills, California residents are taking on Internet giants Comcast and AT&T.

Residents of a tech-rich but internet-poor Silicon Valley neighborhood are fed up with download speeds below 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds below 3 Mbps — the federal definition of a home without adequate internet.

Frustrated by the take-it-or-leave-it attitude of ISPs, they created their own solution — and now this tony enclave has one of the fastest residential speeds in the country.

Scott Vanderlip, a software engineer, said Comcast gave him a $17,000 quote to connect his home to a neighbor’s faster Internet service.

“You’ve got to be kidding me — I can see it on a pole in my driveway,” Vanderlip said, recalling his reaction to Comcast’s quote.

So the self-described “urban rebel” jumped at the chance to partner with a start-up internet service provider called Next Level Networks. If Vanderlip could get a few neighbors willing to invest a few thousand dollars, Next Level would get them super-fast internet.

This was in 2017. Now, Vanderlip is president of the Los Altos Hills Community Fiber Association, which provides superfast speeds — up to 10 Gigabits per second upload and download — to its more than 40 association members, allowing them to transfer large files. and load web pages with a computer mouse, Vanderlip said. That’s 125 times faster than the average download speed in Santa Clara County.

The status quo of broadband — the simultaneous transfer of large amounts of data from one place to another — uses telephone wires or copper coaxial cables owned by big companies like Comcast, Spectrum and AT&T.

According to the Fiber Broadband Association, this copper-based internet is all that’s available to about 60% of US homes. According to Pew surveys, in 2021, four in 10 adults earning less than $30,000 a year did not have access to broadband at home. And many Americans don’t have internet at all.

“We can’t keep begging the Comcasts and AT&Ts of the world to build a network that ensures reliable and affordable (internet) for everyone in our community,” said Sean Gonsalves, who works on community broadband at the institute. For Local Self-Reliance.

Experts say super-fast fiber optic cables are the future of broadband. Instead of using electricity, tiny beams of light bounce down the core of glass or plastic fiber-optic cables, each about the thickness of two sheets of printer paper.

Because it transmits data through light, fiber optic internet has nearly limitless possibilities, Gonsalves said, and its infrastructure is cheaper to maintain than copper cables. Best of all, fiber provides the same internet speed when downloading and uploading data, meaning your Zoom video meeting is as fast as streaming a movie on Netflix.

The big players don’t plan on being left behind. In September, Comcast announced successful tests of the latest piece of technology needed to roll out multi-Gbps speeds to its customers on existing cable networks over the next few years.

Many cities are considering the idea of ​​building fiber optic infrastructure. Vanderlip and Next Level founder Darrell Gentry first discussed the prospect of a pilot program on Vanderlip Street in 2017 when they met on a city committee on the topic. The committee disbanded, but the startup partnership with the neighborhood continued.

Los Altos Hills had the right ingredients: enthusiastic, tech-savvy residents with slow internet and plenty of money to invest in their homes. Vanderlip’s home was also located near a local school with a backup fiber optic internet connection.

Gentry’s company was involved in infrastructure procurement, contracting, logistics and retail sales — mainly providing residents with turnkey fiber-optic Internet service — before Vanderlip and two of his neighbors, who each joined with $5,000 in investments, acquired new members by purchasing fiber-optic infrastructure. and laid out the original fiber route to their home.

Community-owned fiber optic cables now cover more than five miles of Los Altos Hills, with an additional two miles under construction.

Their Internet runs from a data center in Santa Clara along half a mile of fiber optic cables attached to telephone poles to a community utility room behind Vanderlip’s house. From there, the fibers run inside orange plastic pipes buried under roads by excavation crews hired by Next Level. After weaving between gas pipes and sewer lines, individual cables are routed to a community member’s home. Home connections vary by distance and construction fees — the most expensive in Los Altos Hills was $12,000. But other Next Level customers in denser areas connect for less — about $2,500.

Despite the technical backgrounds of many members of the Los Altos Hills association, Gentry believes it is important to have a partner with the infrastructure know-how necessary to build Internet service. But some communities have managed to build internet service from scratch without a private company, Gonsalves said. For example, the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, offered residents 1 Gbps fiber optic internet back in 2010.

Any form of community ownership will create competition in the Internet market, Gonsalves said, giving consumers a say in pricing and Internet specifications. For example, Next Level customers can choose between 1 and 10 Gbps internet. If they want, residents can try to switch to a regional provider like Sonic at the end of their contract, although most providers prefer to work with their existing broadband infrastructure.

But that could change with the availability of $42 billion in federal funding for broadband infrastructure from the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act. Gov. Gavin Newsom also approved a $3 billion plan to build a 10,000-mile statewide median network.

Meanwhile, Los Altos Hills neighbors are trying to lower the $155 monthly fee by recruiting more members. And Vanderlip has a tactic called bragging.

“You can go to your next Silicon Valley fancy party and celebrate that you have 10 (Gbps) service,” he said. “Almost nobody in the world offers 10 concerts. We are one of the fastest residential broadband providers in the world.”

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