South Bay neighbors unite to break the Internet oligopoly in Silicon Valley

A group of Los Altos Hills residents is standing up to internet giants Comcast and AT&T.

Tech-rich but Internet-poor, residents of the Silicon Valley neighborhood were fed up with slow broadband speeds of less than 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload—the federal definition of an Internet-unserviced home appropriate.

Frustrated with the take-it-or-leave-it attitude of internet service providers, they built their own solution and now this tony enclave has one of the fastest residential speeds in the nation.

Scott Vanderlip, a software engineer, said Comcast gave him an estimate of $17,000 to connect his home to the faster Internet service at a neighbor’s house.

“You’re kidding me, I can see him on the pole from my driveway,” Vanderlip said, recalling his reaction to the Comcast subpoena.

So the self-described “city rebel” jumped at the chance to partner with a startup Internet service provider called Next Level Networks. If Vanderlip could round up a few neighbors willing to invest a couple thousand dollars, Next Level would get them very fast internet.

A radio tower connects homes more than a mile apart to the fiber service located at Scott Vanderlip's home.  Below the Vanderlip family treehouse to the right is a backup battery and an electronics cabinet for the radio tower.  (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
A radio tower connects homes more than a mile apart to the fiber service located at Scott Vanderlip’s home. Below the Vanderlip family treehouse to the right is a backup battery and an electronics cabinet for the radio tower. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

That was in 2017. Now, Vanderlip is president of the Los Altos Hills Community Fiber Association, which provides super-fast speeds — up to 10 Gigabits per second for uploads and downloads — to its more than 40 association members, allowing them to transfer huge files and load Web pages with the click of a computer mouse, Vanderlip said. That is 125 times faster compared to the average download speed in Santa Clara County.

The status quo of broadband communication – the passing of large amounts of data from one place to another simultaneously – uses telephone wires or copper coaxial cables owned by large companies such as Comcast, Spectrum and AT&T.

This copper-based Internet is all that’s available to nearly 60 percent of homes in the United States, according to the Fiber Broadband Association. Four out of 10 adults earning less than $30,000 a year didn’t have access to broadband internet at home in 2021, according to Pew surveys. And many Americans have no internet at all.

“We can’t keep begging the Comcasts and AT&Ts of the world to build a network that ensures everyone in our community has reliable and affordable (internet) access,” said Sean Gonsalves, who works on community broadband networks at the ‘Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Experts say super-fast fiber optic cables are the future of broadband. Instead of using electricity, tiny beams of light bounce along the core of glass or plastic fiber-optic cables, each as thick as a stack of two sheets of printer paper.

Because it transmits data via light, fiber-optic internet has nearly unlimited capacity, Gonsalves said, and its infrastructure is cheaper to maintain than copper wires. More importantly, fiber provides the same internet speeds when downloading and uploading data, meaning your Zoom video meeting is as fast as streaming a movie on Netflix.

Los Altos Hills Community Fiber Association president Scott Vanderlip demonstrates fiber cables on Oct. 27, 2022. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
Los Altos Hills Community Fiber Association president Scott Vanderlip demonstrates fiber cables on Oct. 27, 2022. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

The big players have no intention of falling behind. In September, Comcast announced successful tests of the latest piece of technology needed to roll out multi-Gbps speeds to its customers’ existing cable networks over the next two years, according to a declaration.

Many cities are dabbling with the idea of ​​building fiber optic infrastructure. Vanderlip and Next Level founder Darrell Gentry first discussed the prospects for a pilot program on Vanderlip Street when they met in a city committee on the topic in 2017. The committee dissolved, but the neighborhood partnership and startup continued.

Los Altos Hills had the necessary ingredients: eager, tech-savvy residents with slow internet and plentiful cash to invest in their homes. Vanderlip’s home was also located near a local school with a backup fiber-optic Internet connection.

Gentry’s company handled infrastructure procurement, contracting, logistics and retail, essentially providing residents with turnkey fiber-optic Internet service, while Vanderlip and two of his neighbors, who they teamed up with an investment of $5,000 each, purchased the fiber optic infrastructure, crowdsourced new members, and mapped a first fiber route to their homes.

Now, community-owned fiber-optic cables stretch over five miles of Los Altos Hills, with another two miles under construction.

Their Internet connection snakes its way from a data center in Santa Clara, along half-mile fiber-optic cables hooked to telephone poles, to a community-owned utility closet behind Vanderlip’s home. From there, the fibers travel inside orange plastic pipes buried under the streets by excavation crews hired by Next Level. After tangling between gas pipes and sewer lines, the individual cables make their way to a community member’s home. Domestic connections vary in distance and construction costs: the most expensive in Los Altos Hills was $12,000. But other Next Level customers in denser areas connect for a lower price, about $2,500.

Despite the technical backgrounds of many members of the Los Altos Hills association, Gentry says it’s essential to have a partner with the infrastructure know-how needed to build an Internet service. But some communities have managed to build internet service from scratch without a private company, Gonsalves said. The city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, for example, offered 1 Gbps fiber-optic Internet to residents in 2010.

Any form of community ownership will introduce competition into the Internet marketplace, Gonsalves said, allowing consumers to have a say in Internet pricing and specifications. For example, Next Level customers can choose between 1 and 10 Gbps Internet. If they wish, residents could try switching to a regional provider, such as Sonic, at the end of their contract, although most providers prefer to work with their own broadband infrastructure.

But that could change when $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 statewide network of 10,000 Half-Mile Miles.

Meanwhile, neighbors in Los Altos Hills are trying to lower their monthly costs by $155 by recruiting more members. And Vanderlip has a tactic, called bragging.

“You can go to your next fancy party in Silicon Valley and mention that you have 10 (Gbps) service,” he said. “Hardly anyone in the world offers 10 gigs. We are one of the fastest residential broadband providers in the world.”