While the COVID-19 crisis has wreaked havoc on health care and the economy, some of its less dire effects have proven a catalyst for Los Altos Hills Community Fiber, a mutual benefit corporation aiming to bring high-speed internet to underserved parts of the town and neighboring communities.
“Not that I would rather have it this way, but we’ve gotten a lot more interest and there’s a lot of people,” said Scott Vanderlip, a Los Altos Hills resident and chairman of the nonprofit. “They have basically said, ‘My internet worked before. Now it doesn’t.’ They’re going crazy because it went from working to literally not working.”
Blame bandwidth sucks like video teleconferencing and 4K video streaming, much more frequent pastimes now that shelter-in-place directives have forced so many people to work, school and entertain themselves from home. Amid the lingering frustration, Community Fiber launched a survey last week to glean information about local residents’ most-pressing internet gripes. As of Friday, 41 people had responded.
Although 30 survey respondents (73.2%) indicated wired, broadband service is “super important” to them, 18 (43.9%) said their level of service has dropped significantly since the
COVID-19 outbreak. Twenty-three respondents (56.1%) use Comcast as their primary provider. AT&T is the second-most popular provider, used by six respondents (14.6%). When asked whether they are interested in joining Community Fiber, 30 people (75%) indicated they are, with 11 (27.5%) among them expressing willingness to become “champions” to inform their neighbors of the possibility.
Sharing the cost
Vanderlip and other Hills residents formed Community Fiber last year as a solution to their own struggles trying to convince telecom giants like Comcast and AT&T to expand and improve service despite the town’s low population density and hilly terrain, both of which provide them with little incentive to do so. Comcast quoted Vanderlip $17,000 to connect his own home five years ago.
Service availability is “literally house-to-house,” he said. “One house may have it and the next house doesn’t, and then they have these astronomical install fees.”
Through its contract internet provider Next Level Networks of Sunnyvale, Community Fiber aims to offer 10-gigabit upload and download speeds for a fraction of what AT&T and Comcast charge by dividing the cost of installing fiber infrastructure among subscribers; the more subscribers who sign up, the less installation costs each one. If, for example, Next Level Networks determines installation for a particular Los Altos Hills street will run $50,000 and five residents there are interested in participating, each would pay $10,000. Later, if their neighbors join, each neighbor’s contribution would help reimburse the early adopters. Everyone pays a monthly membership fee between $60 and $140.
“The cost of doing this will be distributed over years, but increasing the number of people who want to participate, it will essentially rebate the people who came first,” said Dr. Gautam Agrawal of the Olive Tree Lane neighborhood.
As a Comcast business-class customer with a backup AT&T DSL line, Agrawal doesn’t experience the latency issues many of his neighbors do, but he’s excited about Community Fiber’s promise of faster speeds at less cost and has become a champion for the initiative. His home, located 900 feet up a hill, provides him with enough line of sight to facilitate a wireless connection from his roof to Next Level Networks. He could then provide a wired fiber connection to his neighbors.
Similar setups are possible for other neighborhoods too, Agrawal said.
“It can be done very inexpensively if we want to, as long as we as a community or a group or a sub-group decide, hey, let’s share our resources, share our expertise and share our knowledge and get it done,” he said. “We don’t have to rely on a third party to do it, and we can provide it faster, better and cheaper than what that third-party could do. That’s the goal.”
While not everyone who has taken Community Fiber’s survey so far agrees 10-gigabit speeds are crucial for remote work, many admit more bandwidth would certainly make some tasks more manageable.
“With my current internet, I can’t reliably do a zoom conf. call,” one respondent wrote. “It’s pretty embarrassing considering we’re in the center of Silicon Valley and can’t get a decent internet connection.”
Another respondent imagined increased bandwidth might improve their personal life.
“My son and daughter would probably visit me more often,” the respondent wrote.
To take the survey and for more information on Los Altos Hills Community Fiber, visit lahcommunityfiber.org.