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Google has captured headlines with its promise to build an ultra-fast Internet network in at least one U.S. city by running fiber-optic cables directly to homes.

Santa Rosa, Petaluma and other cities across the nation have clamored to be chosen as the test market. One mayor even jumped into a shark-infested tank in Florida as a publicity stunt to woo the Internet giant.

But in Sonoma County, at least one town will get a similar Internet network without the antics.

Local Internet provider Sonic.net plans to test a fiber-optic network in Sebastopol as part of its ongoing efforts to push the boundaries of technology and transform itself into a full-fledged telecommunications company.

The Santa Rosa company, which celebrated its 15th anniversary this year, plans to string fiber optic cables along utility poles in front of about 600 Sebastopol homes.

"We have been planning this project for, gosh, almost a year now," said Dane Jasper, co-founder and president of Sonic.net.

The move represents the latest transformation for Sonic.net, which started as a dial-up service and for years has relied on renting copper telephone lines from AT&T — its main competitor.

Now the homegrown company is looking to install its own utility lines directly to homes and offer a service that neither AT&T nor Comcast does.

"Fiber is the end game," Jasper said.

Fiber optic lines are essentially long spindles of glass that transmit information using pulses of light. The technology is capable of carrying significantly larger amounts of digital information — and for longer distances — than other technologies such as cable and phone lines.

The Sebastopol test market sets the stage for Sonic to expand into other markets, with Santa Rosa currently on top of the list.

Jasper intends to have the company's fiber-to-the-home Internet service deployed by the end of this year in Sebastopol — many months ahead of Google's much-touted effort.

If that happens, Sonic.net might be the first company in the country to deploy a fiber-to-the-home network in an area where it is not the incumbent provider, said Vince Vittore, a Chicago-based analyst with research-firm Yankee Group.

"They are definitely on the forefront," said Vittore, who specializes in broadband issues. "It's a very interesting project."

The United States has trailed other countries in deploying fiber networks.

In some European and Asian countries, direct-fiber networks have become the norm. People in South Korea and parts of Scandinavia enjoy speeds of 1 gigabit per second — about 100 times faster than the prevailing speeds in Sonoma County and most of the United States.

Only Verizon has a widespread deployment of residential fiber-optic networks in the United States, largely in Southern California.

That high-speed deficiency prompted the U.S. government to reveal plans Tuesday to develop a strategy to improve Internet speeds and availability in the United States. The Federal Communications Commission set a goal of having 100 million people hooked up to broadband speeds of 50 Mbps within five years — and 100 Mbps within 10 years. Sebastopol residents will be some of the first in the country to count toward that goal.

Sonic has not determined the exact Internet speed it will offer customers in Sebastopol, and won't until construction is nearly complete, Jasper said. But the network is expected to be comparable to those in Asia and Europe, and similar to the one Google is planning. It will be capable of speeds up to 1 gigabit per second, Jasper said.

It will also offer phone service and eventually TV service on the fiber lines, he said.

AT&T's fastest speed in Sonoma County is 6 megabits per second — more than 100 times slower — and Comcast's fastest sustained speed is about 20 megabits per second. Verizon, on its fiber optic network, offers speeds up to 50 Mbps.

Both AT&T and Comcast recently spent tens of millions of dollars in Sonoma County pushing fiber deeper into neighborhoods. But with these networks, the fiber runs to streetside utility boxes where the service signal is transferred to older technologies. The final distance to customers' homes is spanned by Comcast's coaxial cable or the copper lines originally installed for telephone service.

The retail price for Sonic.net's fiber service will remain undetermined until the company has a better understanding of how much it will cost to build. But Jasper expects people will pay roughly the same price as today — somewhere between $35 and $85.

Many hurdles still stand in the way of any widespread deployment. The foremost challenge is cost and customer adoption.

For instance, in order to cover the high costs of deployment, Sonic wants people to commit to its service. It is asking people in cities such as Santa Rosa to switch their Internet service to Sonic.net. When enough people have converted, it will begin construction.

Just what percentage of people will need to sign up before Sonic starts building is still being determined. Eventually the company plans to announce a specific number.

The company's hope is that neighbors will begin urging neighbors to switch to Sonic in order to get fiber built in the city.

"There is a thirst for fiber to the home, which Google made clear with its announcement," Jasper said. "Now the number of people who really want the product will determine its viability."

A similar model was successfully deployed in Scandinavian countries, Vittore said.

"That is a great strategy. It is very smart on their part," he said.

Sonic chose to test its network in Sebastopol because about 25 percent of homes already subscribe to its service. In Santa Rosa, where Sonic has its second-highest market share, about 8 percent of homes subscribe to its service. Santa Rosa residents will likely need to raise that number to at least 30 percent before it becomes economically feasible.

"Fiber to the home means going down every street," Jasper said. "That is why we need a commitment level."

In Sebastopol, people expressed excitement at being the first city in Northern California to receive fiber-to-the-home Internet service.

"Faster is good," said Sia Yambire.

His 10-year-old daughter adamantly agreed.

"I really hate when you click on something and it just has to load, load, load," Malaika Yambire said.

The proposed service even received the endorsement of residents who attracted global attention for successfully pushing the city to reject free wireless Internet service due to health concerns.

"Fiber optics are far superior," said Sandi Maurer, founder of the Electromagnetic Field Safety Network in Sebastopol. "As long as there is not a wireless component, then Sonic.net is on the right track."

You can reach Staff Writer Nathan Halverson at 703-1577 or nathan.halverson@pressdemocrat.com.

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