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.”
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Sonic has been absolutely incredible. We have their Gigabit Fiber, which is not only priced unimaginably better than any and all of their competitors, but they're not cheap or stingy with the speed either. - They don't force a data cap on you, so you can truly surf and download, upload to your heart's content. - They've never throttled the internet speeds, and we have certainly used it heavily. - But I think most incredibly, the connection is SYMMETRICAL! Which means that not only do we have a full 1 Gigabit download, we ALSO have 1 Gigabit upload as well! Who the heck else does that. Sonic's customer service? Where do I even begin? Amazing. From the installation to anything that's come up after, they've always been incredibly on top of everything, and super helpful. When you call, it's apparent you're speaking with a trained professional in the United States. They know exactly what's up, are super friendly, and have always just gone above and beyond anything you'd expect from a company. They really feel like they're friends or family, and that's quite the accomplishment. The only time we ever had even close to an issue was when we weren't sure if our Wi-Fi speeds, which were still insanely fast in the *hundreds* of Mbps, could be faster. The gentleman I spoke with, just by merely mentioning the Wi-Fi didn't seem as fast as it could be, took it so incredibly personal (as if it was his own home, or brother/sister/parent having the issue) to figure out and squash anything that may be slowing it down. It actually caught me off guard, just how much he cared - it made me realize how much we just get used to companies and customer service just not caring. You could hear it in his voice, just the fire and passion to figure out what any possible solutions could be - just so that we, these people he didn't even know, could be even happier. He spent time not just thinking up a bunch of various solutions that may work, but also actually knew enough to explain why and how each thing would help. In the end it actually ended up being an issue on OUR end, NOT Sonic's (our Wireless cards were literally not fast enough to keep up with their insane speeds - we had to buy new ones!), but even though it ended up being our fault you wouldn't believe how passionate and caring they were. They called me a couple of days later to check-in and make sure everything was ok, they sent me a couple of emails happily asking if there was anything they could do or if we needed anything else, everything. Wow. Just, completely on top of things. They'd even offered to send somebody out "just in case" within 1 1/2 days (it was late Saturday, they said they would get somebody to us Monday). We looked around, and have lived different places - nobody has ever even come close to Sonic's offering. Sonic has been, hands-down the absolute best Internet Service Provider we've ever had. I've written reviews before, and I always try to think of any cons. I honestly don't remember the last time I ever wrote a review where there were zero cons - and yet, here we are. Sonic, I don't know how they've managed to do it, all while still flying under everybody's radar, but if there was a company ready to take over and make substantial changes to the industry, it's Sonic. They don't seem to have forgotten where they came from, and have somehow managed to keep their prices just, unimaginably competitive. Their prices just humiliate everyone else and make you realize how profit-driven other companies are - to the extent that, unlike Sonic, they end up just putting it above customers. Sonic, if you're reading this: thank you for being you. You don't realize how much customers appreciate you. And to you, stranger of the internet, I hope that this has been helpful to you in gaining insight into what has to be one of the best companies in the world. I gladly, and wholeheartedly, fully recommend Sonic.
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Column: Sonic is a small ISP that competes brilliantly with the big guys — so they’re trying to throttle its business
Dane Jasper says he doesn’t think that big telecommunications companies AT&T and Verizon are deliberately trying to put his company out of business.
“I think they haven’t noticed us,” he said.
Perhaps he’s just being charitable. For years, the big companies have striven to hamstring competition across the telecommunications landscape. And last month, they essentially asked the Federal Communications Commission to finish the job by repealing a rule granting competing phone and internet companies wholesale access to their copper-wire phone infrastructure. The industry petition argues that the rule is an “intrusive” regulation that has outlived its usefulness.
Jasper says the opposite is true — that the access to copper, which is guaranteed by a 1996 law, is what has enabled his small regional internet firm and others like it to continue rolling out high-speed broadband services to their customers, in competition with the big firms.
We don’t have the hubris to presume that we own the internet.
Sonic co-founder and CEO Dane Jasper
Jasper, 45, is the co-founder and CEO of Sonic, a private Santa Rosa company that provides more than 100,000 customers in about 125 California communities phone and internet service at a flat rate starting at $40 a month. Don’t let the low price fool you: Sonic is praised for its customer service, delivers internet speeds of up to 1 gigabit to some customers, and receives top marks for its privacy policies.
As a private firm, Sonic doesn’t disclose revenue or earnings. But with steady expansion it now employs nearly 500 people, many of them sharing a bustling workplace with their astonishingly well-behaved dogs in a Santa Rosa office park.
About half of Sonic’s customers receive DSL broadband service over phone lines Sonic rents from AT&T. But the company’s future rests with the fiber it has been laying, starting with five Northern California cities — San Francisco, Berkeley, Albany, Brentwood, and Sebastopol. In those cities phone and internet service now is available to an estimated 182,000 homes or commercial establishments, with further expansion in the cards.
Sonic and other small internet service providers, or ISPs, like it owe their business models to an obscure provision of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The act required the major phone companies to lease their copper wire infrastructure, on which phone service traveled, to competitors at a regulated price.
This allowed hundreds of competitive companies, known as CLECs, for “competitive local exchange carriers,” to flourish by offering cheap, innovative phone service and expanding into DSL — that is, phone-line-based broadband access. Some, such as Sonic, have used revenue from their phone and DSL customer base to finance expansion into fiber internet service.
The telecom industry’s petition, which was filed in May via USTelecom, its Washington trade group, would end the leasing rule within 2 1/2 years, cutting off that revenue stream. (The trade group has dozens of members among local and national telecom firms, but its four biggest members are AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink and Frontier Communications.)
The industry’s argument for dropping the leasing rule is that residential CLECs are an insignificant part of the business now and are shrinking at a rapid clip. “There is effectively no remaining … competition in that marketplace,” USTelecom said in its filing.
“That’s flat-out wrong,” Jasper told me. “We’ve got 50,000 California households connected, getting innovative broadband service that in the vast majority of cases is faster than the incumbent offers.” Another 50,000 customers connect through other means, including fiber.
Sonic and other small ISPs have been fighting back in Congress and before the FCC. In a letter to Sens. John Thune, (R-S.D.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), chairman and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, they pointed out that the industry’s petition would stifle fiber deployment, cut off rural communities from the broadband service they provide, and jack up rates. “Our companies build state of the art, Gigabit speed fiber networks,” Jasper and 15 fellow CEOs wrote, “and in many cases, supply the only network access for communities that have been abandoned by incumbent providers.”
In late June, Jasper and his colleagues visited FCC commissioners to argue that competition is not yet nearly robust enough to cut off the CLECs. They got polite hearings from the commissioners or their staffs, but came away with a strong sense of how the deregulatory environment enveloping Washington is oriented toward making the big and rich players bigger and richer.
The big telecom firms are irked at being saddled with a regulation that doesn’t apply to their main broadband competitors, cable firms. But this argument only underscores how lack of regulation and competition has left the U.S. with some of the slowest, least reliable and most expensive broadband service in the developed world.
The phone companies staved off a rule that they share their fiber lines, as well as their copper lines, with competitors by asserting that they simply wouldn’t invest in fiber if they couldn’t keep the infrastructure to themselves. In 2004, the FCC dropped the rule and Edward Whitacre, the chairman of SBC — later to morph into today’s AT&T — declared that an era of “innovation and investment” was dawning. “The shovel is in the ground and we are ready to go,” he said.
Things haven’t worked out that way. AT&T and Verizon have responded to the high upfront cost of installing fiber by limiting deployment to small portions of the country. “Wall Street punished us for investing in FiOS,” a Verizon executive explained to Congress in 2012, referring to that company’s once-ambitious fiber service.
Hands-off regulation of phone companies and cable firms has made real competition in broadband service effectively nonexistent. Half the households in America have only one choice for decent service — their cable operator. Very few have more than two — their local cable company and local phone company.
Yet despite their own problems financing fiber, the big phone companies maintain that the CLECs have had more than enough time to build their own fiber networks, and therefore don’t need to continue receiving wholesale rates on copper.
“We’ve had 18 years of their building their customer base” by piggybacking on telecom company copper, Jonathan Banks, USTelecom’s senior vice president for law and policy, told me. “The rule was supposed to jump-start competition. We’re in the position of saying enough’s enough.”
The dearth of competition among ISPs isn’t just quantitative, but qualitative. Companies such as Sonic compete by trying to offer superior customer service and benefits. Sonic bundles phone and internet service together for $40 a month for the first year of service, and $50 thereafter. Customers get phone service with all the trimmings, such as free caller ID and calling to the U.S., Canada and land lines in 66 other countries, and internet at the fastest speeds the local infrastructure can handle, with no surcharges for higher speeds.
Jasper co-founded Sonic in 1994 with Scott Doty, a colleague at Santa Rosa Junior College. They were tasked with providing rudimentary dial-up access for students and labs. This was the pre-World Wide Web internet, offering email, file-sharing and chat, but they soon discovered that students at a local high school were using fake IDs to gain access to their service for free.
Jasper realized that if the kids were willing to pay $25 for a fake ID to get free internet access, then the access was something they could charge for directly. So they set up a few phone lines in a back room of his mother’s house and sold dial-up access for $12 a month, undercutting CompuServe and America Online.
The philosophy they brought with them — so characteristic of the internet’s formative years, that the network belongs to everyone — dictates Sonic’s privacy and network neutrality policies.
“We don’t have the hubris to presume that we own the internet,” Jasper told me. “I feel privileged to be able to sell people a pipe to all those wonderful applications that brilliant people are deploying.”
Sonic also keeps logs of its subscribers’ internet activities for 14 days, which it feels is long enough to allow law enforcement agencies to conduct legitimate investigation (the industry standard is 18 months). “We have a set of philosophies around privacy protections and neutrality that are grounded in our concerns for the internet ecosystem as a whole.”
That means that Sonic customers are insulated — though not completely immunized — from cross-marketing by commercial websites and the excessively probing eyes of law enforcement.
That’s an approach that could disappear if the internet is ceded entirely to big players with more concern for their bottom lines than for customers’ privacy or access to any content they wish. ISPs such as Sonic serve as a check on big players that don’t care about customers. Is it any wonder the big guys want to stamp them out?
Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email [email protected]
Return to Michael Hiltzik’s blog.
Sonic is a DSL internet provider operating out of the state of California. It’s the eighth-largest DSL provider in the nation with service available to nearly 3 million customers. Sonic has also started offering its service through fiber and copper lines, expanding its service to meet the growing demand for fiber service. Though fiber availability through Sonic is relatively limited at this time, with about four-hundred thousand customers having access to Sonic fiber, they are actively in the process of expanding coverage.
Sonic began as a way to provide internet access to Santa Rosa Junior College. Founded by Dane Jasper and Scott Doty, they wanted to provide DSL internet service in a time when most people hadn’t even heard of the internet, let alone had uses it. In 1994, Sonic expanded its service to provide internet to customers who were not staff or students at Santa Rosa Junior College and have continued to expand with service now in nearly 500 zip codes stretching up the California coastline with particularly high coverage in Northern California. The company even services major metropolitan areas such as Sacramento, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Sonic has created an interesting space for itself in the ISP market. With a focus on user privacy and anonymity, denying multiple orders from the U.S. government to provide user data in regards to torrent downloads and specific users’ involvement with Wikileaks and Tor.
Sonic’s DSL coverage is the backbone of its internet service though they are trying to change that. In 2015, Sonic partnered with AT&T to increase its fiber-to-the-node access, increasing speeds as a result. Beyond that, Sonic has begun to install its own truly fiber lines allowing customers in select areas to reach up to one thousand Mbps, a speed that was previously unattainable. Alongside internet service, Sonic also offers a number of options in the home, offering home phone service and partnering with Dish Network to provide television.
Sonic has maintained a reputation as not only a company that delivers a reliable high-speed connection to its customers but also a company that stands by its ethics. Both Dane Jasper and Scott Doty have spoken up on numerous occasions to combat the ever-growing lack of privacy on the web. They have implemented policies that reflect this. In 2011, they reduced the amount of time that they store user data to just two weeks in the face of an ever-growing tide of legal requests for its users’ data. That same year, Sonic alongside Google fought a court order to hand over email addresses who had contacted and had a correspondence with Tor developer and Wikileaks contributor Jacob Applebaum. When asked why, CEO Dane Jasper responded that it was “rather expensive, but the right thing to do.”
Sonic has made a habit of doing the right thing, both for its customers and the larger world. It’s a conscientious company that delivers on what is promised and goes the extra mile for its subscribers.
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Sonic is a telecommunications company and internet service provider based in Santa Rosa, California, acting as a competitive local exchange carrier in the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento, and Los Angeles.
Sonic began as an effort to bring network connectivity and Internet access to staff and students at the campus of Santa Rosa Junior College. In 1994, Sonic began formal Internet operations by way of a partnership between Dane Jasper and Scott Doty, both of whom had worked on the network at Santa Rosa Junior College. In 1995, Sonic moved into its downtown Santa Rosa location.
In 2011, after becoming concerned about increasing legal requests for users' data, mostly related to copyright infringement involving pornography, Sonic cut the time it stores logs of user activity to two weeks.
Later in 2011, the U.S. government forced Sonic and Google to turn over e-mail addresses of people who had corresponded with WikiLeaks volunteer and Tor developer Jacob Appelbaum. Sonic and Google fought the secret court order, which CEO Dane Jasper characterized as "rather expensive, but the right thing to do," and the court agreed to lift the seal on the Sonic order to give Appelbaum a copy of it.
In 2012, Jasper told TorrentFreak that Sonic will not be participating in the so-called "six strikes" plan, in which major U.S. Internet service providers will begin to warn and punish people suspected of infringing copyrights, saying that ISPs are not equipped to police the actions of individuals, and that the MPAA and RIAA have not invited small, independent ISPs to participate.
In late 2014, Sonic.net rebranded as Sonic, after acquiring sonic.com and @sonic twitter handle.
In April 2015, the company partnered with AT&T to expand service, using fiber-to-the-node. Due to this partnership, Sonic customers have to follow AT&T policies, including any access given to the federal government. Sonic customers can utilize a VPN to avoid AT&T policies and Sonic requests court orders for any investigations requested by the law.
In December 2018, Sonic announced a partnership with eero inc., creator of the first whole-home WiFi mesh system, to improve WiFi connectivity across the entire home.
Sonic offers a number of services including:
- 10 Gigabit Fiber – business product
- Gigabit Fiber – combined voice (VoIP) and data service offering up to 1,000Mbit/s per line using Passive Optical Networking, with unlimited nationwide land line voice. Sonic has full control of the line: subscribers are on Sonic's IP space. Available in select markets, currently only Northern California locations.
- Fusion ADSL2+ – combined voice (POTS) and data service offering up to 20Mbit/s per line, with unlimited nationwide land line voice. Sonic has full control of the line: subscribers are on Sonic's IP space.
- Fusion VDSL2 – combined voice (POTS) and data service offering up to 75Mbit/s with the same limitations as Fusion ADSL2+. This subscription is served from a CO where Sonic has full control of the line cards and therefore remove any artificial limitation in speed that a subscriber can get. The requirement for getting this service is an individual has to be relatively close to the CO, up to 4000 feet. X2 is also available which will roughly double the speed.
- Fusion FTTN (VDSL2) – combined voice (VoIP) and data service offering from 20Mbit/s up to 75bit/s through bonding (X2), with unlimited nationwide land line voice. This is resold AT&T U-verse. Single pair connection is limited to 50Mbit/s even if the line is capable of more than that; bonded pair is limited to 75bit/s. Sonic has some control of the line such as not enforcing transfer caps, but customers are on AT&T's IP space. VoIP connection defaults to G.729ab and uses less than 50 Kbps.
- FlexLink – midband Ethernet service offering symmetric speeds from 1.5Mbit/s to 500Mbit/s.
- AT&T DSL – ADSL service delivered over an AT&T voice line. This service is obsolete and Sonic is no longer accepting legacy ADSL1 subscriptions.
- Hosting – website hosting services.
- Colocation – datacenter colocation in Santa Rosa, CA.
- ^ abcDane Jasper interviewed on the TV show Triangulation on the TWiT.tv network
- ^"CLEC Update". Sonic.net. January 5, 2008. Retrieved 22 October 2013.
- ^"Moving Outside: From ISP to OSP". Sonic.net. July 31, 2011. Retrieved 22 October 2013.
- ^Hiltzik, Michael (July 5, 2018). "Sonic is a small ISP that competes brilliantly with the big guys — so they're trying to throttle its business". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved July 9, 2018.
- ^"The History of Sonic". Sonic.net. Archived from the original on October 7, 2010. Retrieved 2010-10-26.
- ^Greenberg, Andy (22 June 2012). "CEO Of Internet Provider Sonic.net: We Delete User Logs After Two Weeks. Your Internet Provider Should, Too". Forbes. Retrieved 7 August 2012.
- ^Greenberg, Andy (11 July 2012). "Five Ways Wireless Carriers Could Rein In The Government's Surveillance Of Your Phone". Forbes. Retrieved 7 August 2012.
- ^Angwin, Julia (9 October 2011). "Secret Orders Target Email: WikiLeaks Backer's Information Sought". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 7 August 2012.
- ^Brooke, Heather (11 October 2011). "How the US government secretly reads your email: Secret orders forcing Google and Sonic to release a WikiLeaks volunteer's email reveal the scale of US government snooping". The Guardian. Retrieved 7 August 2012.
- ^"Has Your ISP Joined the US "Six Strikes" Anti-Piracy Scheme?". TorrentFreak. 3 August 2012. Retrieved 7 August 2012.
- ^Allemann, Andrew. "Why Sonic.net rebranded as Sonic, and how it got Sonic.com". Domain Name Wire. Retrieved 18 June 2018.
- ^Gogola, Tom. "Sonic Truth". News. Bohemian. Retrieved 25 August 2015.
- ^"Sonic Partners with Eero Inc. For More Secure WIFI". Mirror Review. 2018-12-13. Retrieved 2020-04-03.
- ^"Sonic introduces new service to boost Wi-Fi reception". The North Bay Business Journal. 2018-12-14. Retrieved 2020-04-03.
- ^"Get Better, Faster Internet. Get Sonic Gigabit Fiber".
- ^"Will Sonic upgrade DSLAMs to VDSL2? (if not already done?)". forums.sonic.net. Retrieved 5 May 2015.
- ^"Will Sonic upgrade DSLAMs to VDSL2? (if not already done?)". forums.sonic.net. Retrieved 5 May 2015.
- ^"Fusion FTTN VoIP settings". forums.sonic.net. Retrieved 14 May 2015.
- ^"Fusion x2 same as FTTN??". forums.sonic.net. Retrieved 29 April 2015.