LAH mulls online service options

Back in April, when Los Altos Hills leaders formed the Emerging Technology Ad Hoc Committee, they hoped to explore the kind of cutting-edge opportunities that define so-called smart communities, advancements like early fire detection sensors.

Committee members have since dialed back expectations – at least temporarily – after recognizing a more pressing need: making reliable, affordable broadband internet accessible to everyone in town who desires it.

“Unfortunately, even though we’re right here in the heart of Silicon Valley, in essentially a globally recognized hot spot for technology, innovation, we have residents whose best option for internet connectivity is no better than … 20 years ago,” said Josh Salcman, the committee’s acting chairman, during an Oct. 11 presentation to the Los Altos Hills City Council.

Some of the attributes that make Los Altos Hills such a desirable place to live – rolling hills and spacious, isolated lots – also limit internet options available to some residents; the topography and low population density make infrastructure installation costly. In fact, a handful of streets were excluded from a 2004 franchise agreement between Los Altos Hills and Comcast, the town’s primary internet provider, because they didn’t meet Comcast’s density requirements. The city council in June authorized a $100,000 placeholder to help pay for installation on the streets as part of a cost-sharing agreement with residents.

There is no official number quantifying how many Los Altos Hills residents still lack high-speed internet access, but repeat recitals of anecdotes like parents shuttling their kids to Starbucks to complete homework assignments is enough to spur on the ad hoc committee.

“There doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency on the part of these incumbent providers to make improvements to the infrastructure,” Salcman said. “One of the things we’re hoping to figure out is how can we put some pressure, potentially, on the incumbent providers and try to find some solutions for the town residents.”

Data gathering

With the council’s blessing, the ad hoc committee has embarked on an information-gathering mission. Committee members want to identify and initiate conversations with analogous towns to determine what creative solutions have worked for other communities with internet service gaps. Members also plan to craft letters and requests for information from providers such as Verizon and AT&T. Committee members and City Manager Carl Cahill met with a Comcast representative Oct. 13.

“They claim they’ve made a lot of investments in their infrastructure and that 1- and 2-gigabyte speeds are in fact available to residents,” Cahill said.

The question is, just how many residents are these broadband speeds available to?

Comcast has encouraged town leaders to obtain hard data quantifying how many Los Altos Hills residents live without adequate internet service.

“Our goals are the same as the population’s in that area: We want broadband connectivity and we want broadband access for them,” said Joan Hammel, Comcast senior director of external communications.

But if Comcast can’t provide Los Altos Hills with the coverage its residents desire, members of the Emerging Technology Ad Hoc Committee are prepared to seek viable options elsewhere.

“I think the message was delivered that we’re going to pursue all options,” Salcman said.

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