A group of residents of Los Altos Hills, California oppose internet giants Comcast and AT&T.
Tech-rich but internet-poor, residents of the Silicon Valley neighborhood were fed up with sluggish broadband speeds of less than 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload — the federal definition of a home without adequate Internet.
Frustrated by ISPs’ take it or leave it attitude, they came up with their own solution – and now this little enclave has one of the fastest residential speeds in the country.
Scott Vanderlip, a software developer, said Comcast gave him a $17,000 estimate to connect his house to a neighbor’s faster Internet service.
“You’re kidding me — I can see it on the pole from my driveway,” Vanderlip said, recalling his reaction to the Comcast quote.
So the self-proclaimed “urban rebel” jumped at the chance to partner with a startup ISP called Next Level Networks. If Vanderlip could gather a few neighbors willing to shell out a few thousand dollars, Next Level would get them very fast internet.
That was 2017. Today, Vanderlip is president of the Los Altos Hills Community Fiber Association, which offers its 40+ association members super-fast speeds — uploading and downloading at up to 10 gigabits per second — that allow them to transfer massive files and websites with the click of a button load, said Vanderlip. That’s 125 times faster than the average download speed in Santa Clara County.
The status quo of broadband communications—the simultaneous transmission of large amounts of data from one place to another—uses telephone wires or copper coaxial cables owned by major companies like Comcast, Spectrum, and AT&T.
According to the Fiber Broadband Association, nearly 60% of homes in the United States have only this copper-based Internet available. According to Pew surveys, four in 10 adults earning less than $30,000 a year didn’t have broadband internet access at home as of 2021. And many Americans have no internet at all.
“We can’t keep asking the Comcasts and the AT&Ts of the world to build a network that will ensure everyone in our community has (Internet) that is reliable and affordable,” said Sean Gonsalves, who works on community broadband at the Institute for local self-reliance.
Experts say super-fast fiber optic cables are the future of broadband. Instead of using electricity, small beams of light hit the core of glass or plastic fiber optic cables, each as thick as a stack of two sheets of printer paper.
Because it carries data via light, the fiber optic internet has near-unlimited capacity, Gonsalves said, and its infrastructure is cheaper to maintain than copper wire. Most importantly, fiber offers the same internet speeds when downloading and uploading data, meaning your Zoom video conference is as fast as streaming a movie on Netflix.
The big players don’t want to be left behind. In September, Comcast announced in a statement that it has successfully tested the latest technology needed to roll out multi-Gbps speeds on existing cable networks for its customers over the next few years.
Many cities are toying with the idea of building a fiber optic infrastructure. Vanderlip and Next Level founder Darrell Gentry first discussed the prospects for a pilot program on Vanderlip’s Street when they met at a town committee on the issue in 2017. The committee dissolved, but the neighborhood startup partnership continued.
Los Altos Hills had the necessary ingredients: eager, tech-savvy residents with slow internet and plenty of money to invest in their homes. Vanderlip’s home also happened to be near a local school with a free fiber optic internet connection.
Gentry’s company handled the infrastructure procurement, contracts, logistics, and retail—essentially providing residents with a turnkey fiber optic internet service—while Vanderlip and two of his neighbors, who joined for a $5,000 investment each, bought the fiber infrastructure and new members collected and mapped an initial fiber optic route to their homes.
The community’s fiber optic cable now spans five miles from Los Altos Hills, with two more miles under construction.
Their internet snakes its way from a data center in Santa Clara via fiber optic cables attached to telephone poles to a community utility closet behind Vanderlip’s house. From there, the fibers travel into orange plastic tubes that are buried beneath roads by excavation crews hired by Next Level. After being woven between the gas pipes and sewers, individual wires lead to a parishioner’s home. Home connections vary by distance and building fees – the most expensive in Los Altos Hills was $12,000. But other Next Level customers in more populated areas connect for less — around $2,500.
Despite the technical background of many Los Altos Hills Association members, Gentry maintains that having a partner with the necessary infrastructure know-how is essential to building an internet service. However, some communities have managed to build an internet service from scratch without a private company, Gonsalves said. For example, the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, offered residents 1 Gbps fiber optic internet as early as 2010.
Any form of community ownership will introduce competition to the Internet market, Gonsalves said, and give consumers a say in pricing and Internet specifications. For example, Next Level customers can choose between 1 and 10 Gbit/s Internet. If desired, residents could try switching to a regional provider such as Sonic after their contract expires, although most providers prefer to work with their own broadband infrastructure.
But that could change if $42 billion in federal funding for broadband infrastructure becomes available under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Governor Gavin Newsom also approved a $3 billion plan to build a 10,000-mile middle-mile network nationwide.
Meanwhile, the Los Altos Hills neighbors are trying to lower their $155 monthly expenses by recruiting more members. And Vanderlip has a tactic called bragging rights.
“You can go to your next fancy party in Silicon Valley and mention that you have 10 Gbps service,” he said. “No one in the world offers 10 Gig. We are one of the fastest residential broadband providers in the world.”