Owen Thomas
Owen Thomas

Santa Cruz will soon receive its first glimpse of some of the fastest internet speeds in the country.

The Santa Cruz City Council voted on April 12 to approve a Wireless Broadband Gigabit Grant Award from Siklu Inc., an Israeli radio transmitter company. In partnership with local internet service provider Cruzio, the service will upgrade select residential, community and commercial sites to gigabit speeds — equivalent to 125 megabytes — over the next three months.

Ten megabytes is standard for internet service from a provider like Comcast, but Siklu would provide a service over 12 times faster with its use of wireless radio technology combined with Cruzio’s glass fiber. Glass fiber uses light to send information, rather than conventional copper electricity-based cable, so it has the potential to send information faster. It’s normally expensive to install in the ground, but thanks to the Gigabit Grant Award, Santa Cruzans will get a chance to experience these high speeds.

“It’s a combination of existing fiber infrastructure and smart fiber-like wireless technology, which is our millimeter wave technology,” said Boris Maysel, Siklu’s director of business development. “This is a concept that can deliver very fast and high capacity [internet] in a cost-effective way.”

Physically connecting the fiber optic cable to people’s homes is often the most expensive part of the whole installation process. “The Siklu technology is really good because it’s one way of solving what’s called the last mile,” said J. Guevara, economic development manager for the city.

Because Siklu is still trying to prove the capability of its technology, it is providing theradio transmitters valued upward of $50,000 for free. They will be placed at 17 locations in Santa Cruz, including Louden Nelson Community Center, the Tannery Arts Lofts affordable housing community and City Hall.

“Even though [$50,000] sounds like a lot of money, it’s a drop in the ocean compared to building fiber,” said James Hackett, Cruzio’s director of business operations & development. “It’s a great way to build quickly, get people using that grade of service quickly and then moving forward.”

The project is part of a much larger plan to have all Santa Cruz residents connected to glass fiber by 2019 at the latest, Guevara said. Starting in January 2017, Santa Cruz Fiber aims to be the first of its kind in the Silicon Valley area.

“The city is working in partnership with [Cruzio] to build to everyone so that we don’t exacerbate but seek to cure the digital divide that is quickly dividing our country and our communities,” Guevara said.

Mainly national corporations such as Verizon’s FiOS and Google Fiber have been behind the handful of U.S. cities to adopt fiber so far. Some of these cities include San Francisco, Austin and Seattle.

“We don’t want to see the internet controlled by two or three mega corporations,” Hackett said. “We think that having locally independently-operated networks makes a lot of sense.”

This plan for using glass fiber is a public- private partnership between Cruzio and the city. The city, after laying the fiber optic cable, will lease it to Cruzio, which will then manage operation of the fiber itself.

Santa Cruz is a unique customer for high speed internet. After data-intensive work started by the Human Genome Project at UC Santa Cruz, the city has become a hub for genomic companies and startups. The fiber that is the basis for the Cruzio fiber network was brought to UCSC in 2009 by UCSC network engineer Jim Warner and his colleagues.

“All of the UC campuses have direct fiber connections and UCSC was pretty much the last campus to not have a way to get direct high-speed fiber connections,” Warner said. “Because we’re a Tier 1 research university, we felt that it was important to the campus that we be up there with everybody else.”

Although the Santa Cruz Fiber project will cost about $45-$60 million, many people, in agreement with a 2011 UN report, see the internet as a basic human right.

“We see it as a utility that’s on par with electricity and water,” Hackett said. From an economic standpoint, Hackett added, “Businesses looking to move into an area would no more move into a city without gigabit infrastructure than they would without adequate plumbing or electricity.”

Some members of the community have also raised potential health concerns about electromagnetic exposure levels from the new wireless technology. However, all the levels from Siklu’s radios fall well within World Health Organization guidelines.

Ultimately, the gigabit speeds achieved by fiber connections are about as fast as modern technology can offer when it comes to physical infrastructure upgrades, as there are no faster ways of transmitting information than using light. These speeds will benefit online businesses and research labs like those at UCSC, and will also benefit people who use the internet casually in their daily lives.

“Most people these days don’t realize they’re using the internet for almost everything. Why invest this much money just so people can watch their Netflix? It’s really so much more than that,” Hackett said. “What we’re looking to build with the city is the network of 10, 20 or 30 years from now.”