Palo Alto's fiber network: I admit that fiber-optic networks have little to do with wireless, but we're still playing clean-up from this week's flurry of activity around an astroturf report on municipal broadband. (Scan through the archives for more on that.)
One piece of email I received during this week from Jeff Hoel in Palo Alto long and interesting as relates to their fiber network. Palo Alto was one of the first cities to build their own infrastructure. They have not been cited in any of the reports or ancillary material that have disputed the efficacy of municipal networks and I was interesting in finding out more. Jeff has a lot of points to make and, with his permission, I reproduce his email in condensed form below.
(Note: Jeff writes about FTTH, which is Fiber To The Home. Many fiber systems are fiber/coax hybrids in which fiber is the backbone and drops to the home use coaxial cable to reduce expense and complexity.)
I'm a Palo Alto resident and an enthusiastic supporter of muni FTTH here. In your 2-1-05 article "Beat the TechBeat on Muni Wireless", you say:
The author conveniently ignores Palo Alto, an early fiber-optic deployer, and I have no idea whether that project was vastly successful or a huge failure. Based on what I know about the growth of Internet businesses around Palo Alto that have remained post dotcom bubble, it seems that fiber might actually attract business.
Here's what I think is going on in Palo Alto.
The city put in a dark fiber infrastructure in 1996. [1 (PDF)]  It's doing fine, in that it's making money and paying off its investment. But the service is expensive enough that only businesses can afford it.
The city put in a 66-home FTTH Trial system in 2001. It's doing fine, in that participants are happy to pay $85/mo for Internet service. During the first year, phone service was also offered, but after that it was dropped because the point had been proved that you could do it. RF analog TV was also demonstrated to work technically, but was never offered as a service because of the hassle of buying the content. The Trial cost something like $640k; nobody ever thought it would pay for itself eventually. I think the equipment chosen for the Trial is not the equipment we'd want for a citywide system, which is too bad, but we learned that the city can at least run an FTTH system.
The city funded FTTH consultants and staff to create a FTTH Business Case (2002), a FTTH Business Plan, phase 1 (2003), and a FTTH Business Plan, phase 2 (2004). Here is the best place to find pointers into this documentation . I wish this documentation were more perceptive than it is.
In 2004, the city came to realize that there might be no attractive way to fund citywide FTTH, given California law. On 7-19-04, Council voted to "chill." [4 (PDF)] That is, they voted not to put FTTH to a vote of the people in November, and not to spend much staff time on FTTH, hoping that maybe some other California city would come up with a good idea for funding FTTH. They also voted to keep running the FTTH Trial, since its continuing operation seemed to be paying for itself.
I think that if a citywide FTTH system does not happen, then FTTH in Palo Alto will have been a failure overall. But it's too early to know what will happen.
The city's utilities department is looking at using wireless for reading hard-to-get-to meters.
By the way, where muni telecom has been successful, economic development was one of the factors considered. Historically, Palo Alto hasn't emphasized this point, but maybe it should.
If you want a FTTH success story, look to Provo, UT.