Sonic.net plans 1Gbps fiber service to San Francisco homes

The small ISP has applied for permission to build fiber to homes across the city

Internet service provider Sonic.net unveiled an ambitious plan on Wednesday to build a fiber network that would reach most residences and small businesses in San Francisco with 1G bps Internet access.

The so-called fiber-to-the-home network would be the first such citywide system in San Francisco and would dramatically exceed the current residential speeds offered by AT&T and Comcast, the city's major ISPs. It could draw avid interest in the city, which is a hub for Internet startups and home to many Silicon Valley technology workers. But such a project would pose daunting costs and regulatory hurdles for any service provider, let alone a small operator such as Sonic.

"I'll certainly concede that it's an ambitious project," said Dane Jasper, CEO and co-founder of Sonic, which has just 60,000 subscribers. Those customers are spread across 13 states, but most are in the San Francisco Bay Area, he said.

The company's main business is offering DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) service over leased copper lines, but earlier this year it began rolling out a fiber network in Sebastopol, California, that is similar to the one planned for San Francisco. There, on a trial network reaching 700 homes, it offers 100M bps unlimited broadband for US$39.95 per month and 1G bps for $69.95 per month. Both plans include voice service for one or two lines with unlimited domestic calls. Sonic also has been selected by Google to build a fiber network for a neighborhood near Stanford University.

Sonic plans to offer similar plans in San Francisco. It has no plans to serve large businesses with the network, nor to offer TV, Jasper said.

Sonic announced on Wednesday it has applied for permits to build the San Francisco network, which would start with a pilot area of 2,000 homes in the largely residential Sunset district and expand over the course of five years to cover the city of about 800,000 residents. The company hopes to begin work next year. The trial will require one utility box, and a full deployment would require an estimated 188, Jasper said.

The last carrier that tried to roll out a significant new network in San Francisco was AT&T, which proposed in 2007 to deploy its U-Verse high-speed Internet and TV service there. Some parts of the city are now covered by U-Verse, but much of the project is tied up in a legal dispute over whether an environmental impact report is required to understand the overall impact of the estimated 728 utility boxes it would require.

Led by an organization called San Francisco Beautiful, neighborhood groups raised concerns about AT&T's plan to install the boxes on sidewalks. A lawsuit over the proposal is expected to be heard next year. San Francisco Beautiful said it has not yet taken a position on Sonic's proposal.

AT&T's travails will be a key factor in Sonic's deployment schedule, according to Jasper. Sonic won't press the city for approval of its application while the suit over the U-Verse boxes is pending, he said.

Sonic can build its network with fewer boxes because it is using all fiber instead of a combination of fiber and copper, Jasper said. Fiber can carry a given speed of access farther than copper can, and it can also scale up to much higher speeds over time as new generations of network equipment become available.

"The investment in fiber is a 50-year infrastructure," Jasper said.

Laying fiber all the way to subscribers' homes can be an expensive, time-consuming task. Verizon Communications, which offers its FiOS data, voice and video service over fiber to the home, has faced some complaints about torn-up front yards. But Sonic has an advantage in San Francisco in that much of the city is still served by utility wires on poles instead of in the ground, Jasper said. Deploying fiber over those poles is easier and less expensive than laying it in the ground, he said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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