A man mobilizes neighbors to build their own fiber optic network

A group of residents of Los Altos Hills, California, stand up to internet giants Comcast and AT&T.

The residents of the Silicon Valley neighborhood, rich in technology but lacking in internet, are fed up with slow broadband speeds of less than 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and 3 megabits per second download—the federal definition of a home not serviced with adequate internet.

Frustrated with the attitude of the ISPs, they created their own solution – and now this Tony area has one of the fastest residential speeds in the country.

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

“You must be kidding me—I can see it on the pole from my driveway,” said Vanderlip, recalling his reaction to Comcast’s quote.

So, the self-described “city revolutionaries” jumped at the opportunity to partner with an emerging internet service provider called Next Level Networks. If Vanderlip can muster a few neighbors willing to invest a couple thousand dollars, Next Level will provide them with blazingly fast internet.

That was in 2017. Now, Vanderlip is president of the Los Altos Hills Community Fiber Association, which provides blazing-fast speeds—up to 10Gbps upload and download—to its 40-plus members, allowing them to transfer huge files and upload web pages with the click of a computer mouse, Vanderlip said. this 125 times faster Average download speed in Santa Clara County.

The status quo of broadband communications—moving large amounts of data from one place to another at the same time—uses telephone wires or copper coaxial cable owned by major companies like Comcast, Spectrum, and AT&T.

This copper-based internet is all that’s available to nearly 60% of homes in the United States, according to the Fiber Optic Broadband Association. Four out of 10 adults earning less than $30,000 a year did not have broadband internet access at home in 2021, according to Pew surveys. And many Americans have no internet at all.

“We can’t keep begging the Comcasts and AT&Ts of the world to build a network that will ensure that everyone in our society has reliable and affordable[internet],” said Sean Gonsalves, who works on broadband networks at the institute. For local self-reliance.

Experts say ultra-fast fiber optic cables are the future of broadband. Instead of using electricity, tiny beams of light bounce off a core of fiber-optic glass or plastic cables, each measured as thick as a stack of two sheets of printer paper.

Because it transmits data through light, fiber internet has almost unlimited capacity, Gonsalves said, and its infrastructure is cheaper to maintain than copper cable. Most importantly, fiber delivers the same internet speeds when downloading and uploading data, which means your Zoom video meeting is just as fast as streaming a movie on Netflix.

The big players don’t plan to be left behind. In September, Comcast announced the successful tests of the final piece of technology needed to roll out multi-gigabit-per-second speeds in its customers’ existing cable networks in the next two years, according to statement.

Many cities are busy with the idea of ​​building fiber optic infrastructure. Vanderlip and Next Level founder Darrell Gentry first discussed the prospects of a pilot program on Vanderlip Street when they met at a city commission on the subject in 2017. The commission dissolved, but the neighborhood startup partnership has endured.

Los Altos Hills had the necessary ingredients: enthusiastic, tech-savvy residents with slow internet, and ample money to invest in their homes. Vanderlip’s house happened to sit near a local school that had a spare fiber optic internet connection.

Gentry handled infrastructure purchases, contracts, logistics and retail—primarily providing residents with turnkey fiber internet—while Vanderlip and two of his neighbors, who joined with an investment of $5,000 each, bought the fiber infrastructure, outsourcing new members. And they plotted a preliminary path for the fiber to their homes.

Now, community-owned fiber optic cables stretch over five miles of the Los Altos hills, with an additional two miles under construction.

Their internet travels from a data center in Santa Clara, along medium-mile fiber-optic cables attached to telephone poles, to a community-owned utility locker behind the Vanderlip house. From there, the fibers travel inside orange plastic tubes buried under the roads by excavation crews hired by Next Level. After weaving between the gas pipes and sewer lines, the individual cables run toward the home of a community member. Home deliveries vary based on distance and building fees—the highest cost in Los Altos Hills was $12,000. But other Next Level customers in denser areas call in for a lower price—about $2,500.

Despite the technical background of many of the members of the Los Altos Hills Association, Gentry maintains that it is essential to have a partner with knowledge of the infrastructure needed to build Internet service. But Gonsalves said some communities have been able to build an internet service from scratch without a private company. The city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, for example, provided residents with 1Gbps of fiber-optic Internet in 2010.

Gonsalves said that any form of community ownership would introduce competition into the Internet market, allowing consumers to have a say in the prices and specifications of the Internet. For example, Next Level customers can choose between 1 and 10 Gbps internet. If desired, residents can try moving to a regional provider, such as Sonic, at the end of their contract, although most providers prefer to work with broadband infrastructure they own.

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

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

“You can go to your next fancy party in Silicon Valley and remember you have 10 (Gbps) service,” he said. “No one in the world offers 10-gig. We are one of the fastest growing residential broadband providers in the world.”

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