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Will free internet ever become a reality in Los Angeles?

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It’s going to be a challenge

City of Los Angeles at night with network
A plan for an LA-wide broadband network seems to have stalled out.
Adrien_G | Shutterstock

Free internet in Los Angeles? It’s an idea that’s been around since at least 2013, when City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield proposed a citywide wireless network that would provide service to millions of residents.

In 2015, finding that up to 30 percent of Los Angeles residents lacked consistent high-speed internet access, Blumenfield and Mayor Eric Garcetti spearheaded an initiative called CityLinkLA, promising to provide reliable—and even free—internet service to the entire city of Los Angeles.

Los Angeles officials planned to build up a network through a public-private partnership, passing off the costs of the ambitious infrastructure project to an outside provider. Blumenfield announced last year that the city never received a workable proposal from a private company to build out the network.

But the idea of citywide coverage may not be dead just yet.

Last year, digital media producer Josh Shapiro launched the Los Angeles Community Broadband Project, a group that aims to provide a new option for residents frustrated with their current internet service—or those who don’t have service at all.

Shapiro plans to build the organization into a nonprofit wireless provider, and he says he’s contacted the cities of Culver City and West Hollywood about creating test networks that would serve residents in more contained geographical areas.

Other cities have been able to provide internet to residents directly—most notably Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the city’s electric company built out a network of fiber optic cables and now provides lightning-fast service at competitive rates.

Programs more similar to Shapiro’s have gotten off the ground in Detroit and a few smaller cities.

Shapiro says the project has garnered greater attention in the wake of the Federal Communications Commission’s vote to repeal net neutrality last month.

The decision drew alarms from consumer rights and free speech advocates, who argued that reversing the policy (which requires internet service providers to treat all traffic equally) could lead to rising costs for consumers and limited access to certain sites.

“We need to come up with a solution that can counter this,” Shapiro says.

He says the technology needed to create an alternative network is “very accessible,” noting that the effort would rely on relatively affordable wireless equipment that is easy to set up—as opposed to a fiber optic network that would require an enormous web of new cable to be installed throughout the entire city.

Map of internet access in Los Angeles
A recent policy brief released by the USC Annenberg Research Network on International Communication found that many Los Angeles households still lack broadband access—particularly in lower income pockets of the city.
Courtesy University of Southern California

Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, tells Curbed that a new fiber optic network in Los Angeles could cost “hundreds of millions of dollars” to build.

That’s one reason he suggests a public-private partnership like the one proposed through the CityLink program may be unappealing to companies that could provide the service. In addition to building an expensive network, they’d have to weather competition from entrenched ISPs like Charter Communications (aka Spectrum).

Mitchell says wireless service like the kind Shapiro wants to provide could be appealing to residents—if it were free.

“That would be tremendous for low-income folks,” he says. “If it happened, I’d be singing.”

But Mitchell has doubts about the ability of a small nonprofit to provide a similar level of service to a major ISP—even one as notoriously unreliable as Spectrum.

To begin with, he says, “wireless tends not to be as reliable as cable.” The technology may also be cheap to install, but its maintenance can be pricey.

Not only that, but staff would need to be on hand to assist customers in the event of an outage or service interruption (Shapiro says the setup and maintenance of his network would initially rely on volunteers and part-time technicians).

Mitchell says these challenges would likely prevent a scrappy startup from rivaling bigger competition without a serious price incentive.

“When people are watching Netflix and suddenly it’s buffering, do they say, ‘Well, I’m saving $20 per month,’ or do they say, ‘I want more reliable service?’” he asks.

Shapiro acknowledges the enormous challenge of setting up a network that serves all of Los Angeles, and suggests that, even if his group is unable to meet that goal, it could still serve as an advisor to smaller communities trying to build their own networks.

“A single neighborhood, or a Homeowners Association, could get together and do something like this,” Shapiro says, adding that his overall goal is affordable access for as many people as possible.

In lieu of a citywide network, that’s become the primary objective for LA officials as well. Alex Comissar, press secretary for Mayor Garcetti, says the mayor has “led and challenged city departments to work harder” on bringing internet access to all.

The city recently established a working group on “connectivity and digital inclusion,” and, through the Our Cycle LA program, is providing refurbished computers and four years of free WiFi to low-income residents.

It’s not universal internet access, but it’s a start.

People should “be able to attach themselves to this technology,” says Shapiro. “This is a critical component of modern society.”