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Is Low-Cost, High-Speed Internet an Economic Right?

If any city can tackle its digital divide, it's San Francisco, writes CivicMakers co-founder Brian Purchia.

What if I told you that 100,000 San Franciscans, including thousands of public school students, do not have electricity or water at home? I imagine many of you would be appalled and call for our government to step in and help. Now, substitute the Internet for water and electricity. Would you still be upset? According to the latest analysis from the city of San Francisco, more than a 100,000 residents in the land of Twitter and Salesforce, do not have access to the Internet at home. Fifty thousand more have sluggish dial-up speeds.

How is this possible? And who is responsible for fixing the situation?

Almost two years ago, CivicMakers began organizing community events on how we close the digital divide and bring a public broadband network to San Francisco. We enlisted the smartest thinkers from the public and private sector, including CPUC Commissioner Catherine Sandoval, Supervisor Mark Farrell, San Francisco CIO Miguel A Gamiño Jr., leaders from Mozilla, the Startup Policy Lab, EFF, Internet Archive and Zero Divide. We asked our elected leaders to explore an issue that has largely been neglected by City Hall since the Google free Wi-Fi effort fizzled out nearly a decade ago.

President Obama has said, "high-speed broadband is not a luxury. ... It's a necessity." Broadband Internet service "has steadily shifted from an optional amenity to a core utility" and is now "taking its place alongside water, sewer, and electricity as essential infrastructure for communities,” according to the White House. This is about equity and competing in the 21st century.

California is the birthplace of the Internet, yet we're falling behind nationally and globally.

A teacher recently shared a story with with me about how she has to dumb down the homework she gives her students because she isn't sure they will be able to download it at home. This is reality for nearly 9,000 San Francisco public school students. How are our children to succeed if they cannot do their homework at home?

And as Supervisor Farrell has said, “How can we expect our residents, in particular those that are having challenges breaking into the workforce, to compete for San Francisco jobs if they can’t even access the Internet?”

Today, San Francisco’s Budget and Legislative Analyst released a report on how we bring low-cost Gigabit-speed Internet to everybody in San Francisco. For the first time we have financial estimates on the costs of constructing, owning and operating a citywide municipal fiber network.

What this report is really about is people – fairness, education and competition.

The report provides policymakers with a range of costs, risks and benefits to the city on three options for building a gigabit network 1) Public development and ownership 2) Private development and ownership and 3) public-private partnership development and ownership.

One thing we cannot do is rely on the incumbent telecoms to provide access to our underserved communities. Their bottom line is making money, not the public good. The Budget and Legislative Analyst makes that clear; the analysis “found no evidence of short-term plans by any of the incumbents to invest in gigabit speed fiber-to-the-premises services Citywide.”

So, I ask how many of you would be willing to pay as much as $26 for high-speed Internet from a variety of providers, with the city retaining ownership of the network? That’s what the report suggests, at maximum, it would cost San Franciscans for Internet via a public-private partnership model. Or under a purely public, demand-driven approach they estimate the city would be on the hook for $393.7 million in construction costs and $103.2 million in annual costs.

If any city can tackle this problem, it's San Francisco. We should be a model for others and build for the future. We have led the charge on equal rights, access to health care and pressing environmental issues. It's time we provided the infrastructure to all residents to compete in our modern economy. Those that cannot afford this basic right should be offered a hand to lift them up.

I believe, like many of you, that Internet access is a basic economic right. It’s not a "nice to have;" it’s a must-have in 2016. It’s time for our elected officials to follow up on these findings and quickly begin a process to open the door for all San Franciscans to thrive, and for more options than the current duopoly we have today.

Brian Purchia is the CEO and founder of Riff City Strategies and co-founder of CivicMakers. The long-time media and public policy strategist served as New Media Director for San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and’s first Communications Director. He was the driving force behind the nation’s first open data law, open source software policy, and API for government.