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Barn raiser in the Hills: Dissatisfied with Big Telecom, residents connect themselves

Los Altos Hills Community Fiber” width=
Courtesy of Scott Vanderlip
Los Altos Hills residents Sean Corrigan, from left, and Scott Vanderlip; Palo Alto resident Brad Horak; and David Barron and Darrell Gentry of Next Level Networks prepare to dig a trench for new fiber in this February 2019 photo.

Five years ago, when Scott Vanderlip decided to switch internet providers from AT&T U-verse to Comcast, he figured wiring his Los Altos Hills home wouldn’t be too labor intensive considering his next-door neighbor’s existing Comcast connection. But the telecom giant quoted him $17,000 for the work.

“I’m, like, ‘But I can see it on the pole right over there,’” Vanderlip said. “They do have to add three poles worth of new cable to string it, but I’m thinking, ‘Seventeen-thousand dollars? You’ve got to be kidding. I’m not going to pay that.’ I’m only paying $70 a month for my (service).”

Frustrated with the lack of alternatives available to a town whose rural, hilly neighborhoods and low-density population give broadband providers little incentive to expand service, Vanderlip and other Hills residents have banded together to form Los Altos Hills Community Fiber, a network owned by subscribers. Supported by Sunnyvale-based internet service provider Next Level Networks, the service went live in April. Currently, only four homes along one side of Fremont Pines Lane – including two owned by Vanderlip – are connected, but there are plans to expand to the other side of the street and to homes on the Wildflower Lane cul-de-sac.

The LAH Community Fiber network offers approximately 1-gigabit speeds for both uploads and downloads now, but it’s built for 10-gigabit speed, which will become available as the cost of the requisite equipment decreases, according to David Barron, Next Level Networks COO. He refers to the network as “future proof” because residents have control over upgrades.

“They swap out the equipment in the home and they can upgrade that capacity from 10 gigabits to 20 to 100 – whatever they need, it’s relatively simple and affordable to do it, and they get to decide when,” Barron said. “They don’t have to wait for some operator to have the budget to come in and change it. The community decides.”

To hook up to Community Fiber, residents pay a one-time assessment fee between $3,000 and $10,000, with the cost dependent on factors like the neighborhood participation rate and lot size, according to Next Level Networks. The monthly service charge ranges from $60 to $140, with the cost of the network uplink and reserves for equipment and technical support decreasing as more people sign up.

In addition to the enthusiasm of Fremont Pines Lane residents like Vanderlip, Next Door Solutions selected the street as the pilot project location due to its proximity to Gardner Bullis School, which already had dark fiber – extra unused fiber-optic cable – from its own network that they could lease from the school district’s middle-mile provider. From Gardner Bullis, the circuit winds through Los Altos, Cupertino and Sunnyvale to get to Santa Clara, where it connects to the backbone of the internet.

Alternative options

Los Altos Hills Community Fiber is a potential solution for some town residents grappling with sluggish internet connections, but there are others. Through the Connect America Fund, the Federal Communications Commission is allocating billions toward providing voice and broadband service to underserved, rural areas. Areas like Los Altos Hills, however, are not home to the target demographic.

“Most of the rural communities are not as affluent as the town of Los Altos Hills, so I don’t think we’re going for funding,” said town Mayor Michelle Wu. “It will be a little bit tougher. The ideal is to encourage a private entity, like a town resident or somebody who says, ‘I will be happy to fund the broadband connectivity such as fiber throughout the town.’”

That might be possible through a company like Santa Clara-based OpenFiber. In October, CEO Phillip Clark told council members his company could facilitate infrastructure capable of delivering 10-gigabit, fiber-optic service to 3,000 or so Los Altos Hills homes for between $12 million and $18 million.

Ronald Haley, who lives on La Rena Lane, would like to see a parcel tax pay for undergrounding fiber across the entire town. He estimates it would cost $15 million based on estimates provided by independent companies interacting with the town’s since-disbanded Emerging Technology Ad Hoc Committee.

“If the town would do it, I’d love it because the town could do it all in one go, whereas the Community Fiber has to go into each community and get agreements to basically run it,” Haley said. “It’s a lot easier when you have the town’s support behind it as opposed to sort of having to fight the town.”

But until that happens, he’s ready to join LAH Community Fiber if and when it becomes available to his pocket of Los Altos Hills. Currently, he’s paying Comcast $160 a month for download speeds of approximately 275 megabits and upload speeds of approximately 10 megabits – and he owns his own modem. A friend in another part of town is paying AT&T $70 for symmetrical fiber bandwidth of 1 gigabit.

“The price depends very much on where you live and if there’s any competition or not, and the problem is, in Los Altos Hills, in most places, there’s no choice but to use Comcast,” Haley said.

Learn more about Los Altos Hills Community Fiber by visiting lahcommunityfiber.org.

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