Santa Rosa internet provider Sonic debuts speedy fiber optic network, as California preps ambitious broadband expansion

The coronavirus pandemic made dependable and affordable internet perhaps the most critical tool for people to work remotely and for students to participate in virtual classes at home.

Workers have been relying on more and more internet bandwidth to provide them with the transmission speeds and video capabilities they had been accustomed to at the office.

When schools in Sonoma County and nationwide turned to the internet in the spring of 2020 for teachers to conduct their classroom instruction virtually, the so-called digital divide highlighted the geographic and economic inequities of access to reliable broadband.

Against this backdrop, Santa Rosa-based Sonic, the largest independent internet provider in Northern California, with about 150,000 customers from Watsonville to Fort Bragg and in parts of the Los Angeles and Sacramento areas, decided last year to invest $10 million in a new fiber optic broadband network in its hometown. By next August, the company will finish the first part of its lightning-quick residential internet network.

Customers connected will have the capability to both download data, movies and games and upload video and system backups on several devices in a home, at up to 10,000 megabits per second. Dane Jasper, CEO and Sonic’s co-founder, called it “silly fast” performance.

This month, Sonic started customer activation to this fiber network in the central and eastern parts of Santa Rosa, including the McDonald Avenue neighborhood where the company got its humble start in 1994 from Jasper’s boyhood home when he was a 21-year-old Santa Rosa Junior College student. Its original offering was dial-up internet, for those of us who remember that relic.

Sonic’s will be the fastest fiber optic broadband network mass marketed to households at reasonable pricing that Jasper says he’s not aware of anywhere else in the United States. In the initial wave of customer connectivity, Sonic expects to enable 15,000 of the city’s 60,000 homes to gain access for $40 a month. After a year, the monthly cost will increase to $50. By comparison, for example, Chattanooga, Tennessee, a municipal utility provider, offers similar high-speed residential internet service, but for $300 a month.

“It’s faster than most people need, which is what you want for a broadband provider,” Jasper told me, indicating the intense network speed probably will be sufficient for Sonic customers for a decade as they acquire new laptops and other computer equipment.

Olivia Browning, a professional photographer living in a one-bedroom apartment on Charles Street in Santa Rosa near Luther Burbank Gardens, is going to be one of the first customers with access to Sonic’s ultra-fast fiber network.

Browning said it will be convenient to be able to ramp up her internet speed for photo editing. Her activation coincides with her plans to buy a new Mac laptop so she expects to have the hardware to take advantage of the blazing speed. And buying internet from Sonic, she told me, fits into her habit of “going local” with her purchases whenever she can.

Many consumers in America have home broadband internet connections from their cable company capable of download transmission of at least 100 Mbps, with much slower upload speeds, according to Federal Communications Commission data. For many years, Sonic’s primary business and residential internet service has been a much faster 1,000 Mbps.

The FCC’s definition of broadband, or high-speed, internet service is expected to accelerate at the behest of Congress, from a minimum of 25 Mbps for downloads to 100 Mbps for downloads, and from 3 Mbps for uploads to 20 Mbps for uploads.

Home or business access comes via technology such as cable, digital subscriber lines that use telephone lines to transmit data, wireless networks, fiber optics and satellite. Fiber internet provides the fastest speeds, typically 1,000 Mbps or greater. However, only 44% of Americans have access to it, according to FCC data, since internet access in most locales is dominated by one or two big players.

Duopoly dominates internet access

Most internet connectivity of any kind nationwide is delivered by a duopoly, controlled either by a cable company — most often Comcast — or a legacy Bell telephone provider such as AT&T or Verizon. Both offer bundled services: cable TV and internet from the cable company or telephone service and broadband from the phone company.

Today, U.S. consumers pay the highest prices in the developed world for high-speed internet connections. “Consumers want more choices for internet access,” Sonic’s CEO said, noting that America needs another 1,000 more independent providers to build broadband networks to sufficiently reduce prices for households. “Creating competition is so important.”