Free Internet Access for Everyone in S.F. Could Cost $867 Million

More than 100,000 San Francisco residents don't have access to the Internet at home. (Getty Images)

A report released Tuesday on how to provide free Internet access to all San Franciscans found that a public fiber-optic network, while costlier, is more likely to reduce the city's digital divide, while a public-private partnership would leave much of the work up to private companies.

“Access to fast and affordable Internet is no longer a luxury. It’s an absolute necessity,” said District 2 Supervisor Mark Farrell, who is leading the effort to provide all San Francisco residents with Internet access. “As we are building the infrastructure of the 21st century here in San Francisco, I believe the residents of our city should be the owners."

The question remains, however: Exactly just how much of it should the city own?

An advisory panel, formed Tuesday, will determine whether the benefits of a public-private partnership outweigh the costs of a public fiber-optic network.

The new report by the Board of Supervisors' budget and legislative analyst, which was requested by Farrell, analyzed the estimated cost of citywide gigabit-speed Internet service made available through a public, private and public-private partnership model.

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The report found that a public municipal fiber-optic network would cost the city $867 million to build, not including the annual cost of operation.

The city had planned to spend only $5.45 million over the next three fiscal years to expand its already-existing fiber optic network.

While the city would maintain ownership of the network's assets, a public-private partnership would leave the task of constructing, administering and operating to a consortium of private companies.

A public-private partnership, which would split the bill between the city and private companies, would also mean a monthly utility fee of up to $26 would be imposed on owners of residential, commercial and industrial property for baseline Internet access.

The report determined that a private model, in which the city would assume no responsibility for the construction, operation and administration of citywide fiber-optic network, is not feasible.

'An economic and social right'

Farrell stressed the importance of citywide Internet access and accessibility, noting that over 100,000 San Francisco residents don't have access to the Internet at home.

"They're disproportionately individuals and households of color, low income and a significant portion of our own public school students," said Farrell. "It is impossible to think that our public school students will be ready for the jobs of tomorrow -- even the jobs in our technology community that we're creating here in San Francisco -- if they don't even have Internet access at home."

The advisory panel plans to come up with recommendations this year.

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"It seems like every approach that's talked about has its pluses and minuses,” said Farrell. "It's time in, my perspective, that we start talking about this as an economic and social right."

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