A group of Los Altos Hills residents are standing up to internet giants Comcast and AT&T.
Tech-rich but internet-poor, residents of the Silicon Valley neighborhood were fed up with slow broadband speeds of under 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload — the federal definition of a house not served by an adequate Internet.
Frustrated with 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 estimate to connect his house to a neighbor’s faster internet service.
“You must be kidding me – I can see it on my driveway post,” Vanderlip said, recalling his reaction to Comcast’s quote.
So the self-proclaimed “town rebel” jumped at the chance to partner with a startup internet service provider called Next Level Networks. If Vanderlip could rally a few neighbors willing to invest a few thousand dollars, Next Level would give them super-fast Internet.
That was 2017. Now Vanderlip is president of the Los Altos Hills Community Fiber Association, which provides super-fast speeds — up to 10 Gigabits per second download and upload — to its more than 40 members in the association, allowing them to transfer huge files and load Web pages with the click of a computer mouse, Vanderlip said. That’s 125 times faster than the median download speed in Santa Clara County.
The status quo of broadband communication – the transfer of large amounts of data from one place to another at the same time – uses telephone wires or copper coaxial cables owned by large 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 Broadband Association. Four in 10 adults earning less than $30,000 a year did not have high-speed Internet access at home in 2021, according to Pew surveys. And many Americans don’t have the Internet at all.
“We can’t keep begging the Comcasts and AT&Ts of the world to build a network that ensures everyone in our community has reliable and affordable (internet) access,” said Sean Gonsalves, who works at Networks. broadband community at the Institute. for local autonomy.
Experts say super-fast fiber optic cables are the future of broadband. Instead of using electricity, small beams of light bounce off the core of glass or plastic fiber optic cables, each measuring the thickness of a stack of two sheets of printer paper.
Because it transmits data through light, fiber-optic internet has nearly unlimited capacity, Gonsalves said, and its infrastructure is cheaper to maintain than copper cables. More importantly, fiber provides the same internet speeds 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 to be left behind. In September, Comcast announced successful testing of the latest technology needed to roll out multi-Gbps speeds in existing cable networks to its customers over the next two years, according to a statement.
Many cities are considering the idea of building fiber optic infrastructure. Vanderlip and Next Level founder Darrell Gentry first discussed the prospects for a pilot program on Vanderlip Street when they met at a city committee on the subject in 2017. The committee dissolved, but the neighborhood-startup partnership continued.
Los Altos Hills had the necessary ingredients: enthusiastic, tech-savvy residents with slow internet and ample cash to invest in their homes. Vanderlip’s home was also near a local school with a spare fiber optic internet connection.
Gentry’s company handled infrastructure procurement, contracts, logistics and retail – essentially providing residents with turnkey fiber optic internet service – while Vanderlip and two of its neighbors , who joined with an investment of $5,000 each, purchased fiber optic infrastructure, outsourced new members. and traced a first fiber route to their homes.
Now, community-owned fiber optic cables stretch more than five miles from Los Altos Hills, with two more miles under construction.
Their internet connection stretches from a data center in Santa Clara, along half a mile of fiber optic cables attached to telephone poles, to a community-owned utility closet behind Vanderlip’s house. From there, the fibers travel inside orange plastic tubes buried under roads by excavation crews hired by Next Level. After weaving their way between gas lines and sewer lines, individual cables make their way to the home of a community member. Home hookups vary by distance and construction costs — the most expensive in Los Altos Hills was $12,000. But other Next Level customers in denser areas connect for less – around $2,500.
Despite the technical background of many members of the Los Altos Hills Association, Gentry maintains that having a partner with the infrastructure know-how necessary to build internet service is essential. But some communities have managed to build internet service from scratch without a private company, Gonsalves said. The city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, for example, offered residents a 1 Gbps fiber optic Internet connection to residents in 2010.
Any form of community ownership will introduce competition to the Internet market, Gonsalves said, allowing consumers to have a say in Internet prices and specifications. For example, Next Level customers can choose between 1 and 10 Gbps of internet. If they wish, residents can try switching to a regional provider, such as Sonic, at the end of their contract, although most providers prefer to work with the broadband infrastructure they own.
But that could change when $42 billion in federal funding allocated for broadband infrastructure through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act becomes available. Governor Gavin Newsom also approved a $3 billion plan to build a 10,000-mile statewide network.
Meanwhile, neighbors in Los Altos Hills are trying to cut their monthly costs by $155 by recruiting more members. And Vanderlip has a tactic, called bragging rights.
“You can walk to your next fancy Silicon Valley party and mention that you have 10 (Gbps) service,” he said. “No one in the world offers barely 10 gigs. We are one of the fastest residential broadband providers in the world.
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