It's all about the money
The issues are well known but the solutions are persistently difficult to introduce.
First off, the sheer cost of digging up streets and physically installing cable provides such an enormous barrier to entry that even a company as big as Google could not justify it for very long.
And you do need to dig up streets and lay cable. As every internet engineer knows, every wireless box has to find its way to a wired connection. The only stable network is one with physical wires at its center.
As such, installing that much cable is a long-term proposition that may never make a profit. Which is why – if it's going to happen – it needs to fit firmly into the public sector bucket along with things like public transport and roads.
It is, to Crawford's eyes, a pure infrastructure play: you'll be hard pressed to make money directly from it, but the resulting extra economic activity that will result from it will pay off massively over time.
It is hard to argue with this proposition in those terms, for the simple reason that an enormous number of other Western countries at the local and national levels have reached the exact same conclusion and many have announced huge national plans – with varying degrees of success.
The problem of course is the unique pro-private sector and anti-government perspective of the United States – something that is in particularly strong force in Washington for at least the next four years.
Efforts to pass large infrastructure spending bills faltered repeatedly under the Obama Administration, thanks in large part to fierce opposition by the Republican Party opposed to such high levels of central spending. That may change under President Trump, seeing as he made huge investments in the country's ailing systems a constant talking point during the election process.
Whether Trump can get such an infrastructure bill past Congress is one question, whether he can include internet infrastructure in that – considering that he will be faced with an enormous lobbying effort from very powerful Big Cable forces in Washington – is quite another.
And so, realistically, any projects will need to come at the city and state level – a situation made all the harder by the fact that Big Cable has been very effectively lobbying state legislatures to introduce new laws that prevent municipal networks from getting off the ground.
If there is any place that can do it right now, however, it is California and San Francisco – which have the money, the demand, the risk-taking potential and the political will to go against the prevailing mood. Which is why, presumably, Crawford is willing to join an effort on the opposite side of the country from where she's based.
The idea, the goal, is simple: fiber optic cables installed all across a city offering a wholesale service to anyone who wants to set themselves up as a retailer to customers.
But to get to that point, local government – in this case the City of San Francisco – is basically going to have to be persuaded to put aside hundreds of millions, perhaps even billions of dollars to pay for it.
Advocates will argue it will usher in an era of super-fast, super-cheap internet access that will drive economic growth; critics will argue it will end up being an enormous boondoggle, paid for by taxpayers, with little real gain. By the time the network is completed, Comcast will offer the same speeds at roughly the same price – why have central government do the job of the more efficient and flexible private sector?
And that is the argument that Supervisor Mark Farrell, law professor Susan Crawford and the San Francisco Municipal Fiber Blue Ribbon Panel will be attempting to win this year. ®