When the Internet was young, Rudy Rucker and Alex Menendez liked to meet for coffee at Farley’s, on 18th Street. There, the aspiring technology entrepreneurs laid the groundwork for Monkeybrains, the Internet service provider (ISP) Rucker founded in 1998. Menendez joined a year later as co-owner. Monkeybrains is now the largest independent ISP based in San Francisco, serving businesses, nonprofits, community organizations, and residences.
Rucker and Menendez initially crossed paths as University of California, Berkeley students. They graduated in 1995, each with a Bachelor of Science degree: Rucker in chemical engineering, Menendez in environmental engineering. But it wasn’t until both got jobs after college at Macromedia, Inc., on Townsend Street, that they struck up a friendship.
“We shared a lot of the same views and wanted to create a business that would serve the world and be sustainable,” Menendez recounted. “The idea was to build a platform that supported itself, but we didn’t have a clear plan on our ability to connect networks. After watching what worked and what was fun to do, we came up with this model of taking fiber optic connectivity and expanding it, using a radio, and extending it to another building by another radio; two radios. The ability to do Internet over the air increased exponentially over the years. We’ve developed a sophisticated product based on a network we’ve been building for 20 years. We’re taking high-bandwidth and spreading it to other places that don’t have the infrastructure ready.”
Higher bandwidth allows users to access larger amounts of data from the web, with faster transfer speeds for such activities as streaming videos, file-sharing, and cloud computing applications. Sheltering in place has made families keenly aware of the need for reliable, high-speed Internet, with more household members working from home, school-aged children needing the ‘net for distance learning, and greater consumption of streamed entertainment.
“Our network’s total bandwidth usage has increased about 30 percent since the shelter-in-place order began in March, a figure that’s consistent with what other ISPs around the country are reporting,” noted Preston Rhea, director of engineering, policy program for Monkeybrains. “We’re constantly upgrading the Internet and pushing speeds to the edge. We like to deploy new technology as it comes online, and to be first in the field experimenters.”
“Our philosophy has always been to put everyone on our network. We offer a no-nonsense flat rate, no hidden fees or surprises. No contract. People can quit in a month if it’s not good,” Menendez said.
The network is available in most of San Francisco for a $35 monthly residential service fee. Single-family homes are charged $250 for installation, multi-dwelling units $100 to $150, with larger apartment buildings often paying no upfront cost depending on the characteristics of the structure’s wiring. Generally, service enters individual units through a Cat5 wire put in by a Monkeybrains’ technicians or that’s already present. Customers also need a router to connect.
“They can purchase a router from Monkeybrains or use their own router,” Rhea said. “In some older apartment buildings, we use small modems to deliver high speeds over telephone wire.”
San Francisco’s low-income communities have historically lacked the infrastructure needed for high-speed Internet. Fiber to Housing, a collaboration between the City and County of San Francisco’s Department of Technology, the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, and Monkeybrains, helps bridge this digital divide. With a $1.8 million budget this fiscal year, Monkeybrians serves as the program’s ISP, providing free Internet to affordable housing units. It’s presently available at 23 San Francisco sites; more than 3,500 units have access to the service. Monkeybrains installed the connection for the Central Waterfront Navigation Center, at 600 25th Street.
“In Potrero Hill, 1101 Connecticut Street was the first building built with significant input from us consulting on the wiring,” Rhea said. “A lot of times, telecom is a bit of an afterthought in affordable housing. We worked with the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development to develop a standard to ensure that [the developer is] going to use the right wiring from the outset so we don’t have to go back and rewire the entire building, or do it piecemeal. It costs money to do that, rewire an entire building. We use a variety of transmission media to deliver a connection from the rooftop radio to an individual unit, depending on what kind of wiring is available in the building. Usually this is copper, occasionally it’s fiber. Ultimately, all connections go to regional fiber to go out to the Internet.”
While bandwidth usage is up, installation demand is mixed; some residents are fleeing the City and businesses are closing, with new ones only partially replacing them.
“Monkeybrains invested in our network capacity at the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in anticipation of a utilization uptick, despite also anticipating lower revenue and a higher suspension and cancellation rate,” Rhea said. “We have seen a lot of fluctuation. Many people are moving out of the City, but our residential new service request rate has never been higher. We still install dozens of new business customers every month, but there have been a lot of service suspensions and quits due to business closures as well. We expect that when the shelter in place order is lifted, this fluctuation will stop.”
Monkeybrains has about 60 employees, including technicians, customer service representatives, and office staff. The company’s culture has a tech vibe; employee autonomy is encouraged. During shelter-in-place office density and hours have been reduced for some staff, with a staggered 60 percent home and 40 percent office schedule for others.
“I never thought that would happen when I was at Farley’s having coffee!” Menendez said. “It’s great to be able to provide jobs to people.”
Monkeybrains started as a web hosting company at Third and Marin streets, where Rucker was living at the time. As the company grew, its address changed several times. Menendez lived at Wisconsin and 22nd streets while one of his kids attended Daniel Webster Elementary School. Presently, he’s a Mission District resident; Rucker lives in Bernal Heights. For five years the company was located on Potrero Avenue and 18th Street, not far from where the founders used to meet up for coffee at Farley’s.
“Potrero Hill has been a big part of our story,” Menendez said.
Monkeybrains now headquarters at 286 12th Street, the site of a former chocolate factory. The spot was chosen for its storage space for gear and cabling, and parking lot for company vehicles. Last year, the partners bought a warehouse in West Oakland to accommodate the ISP’s growth. The additional space helps maintain physical distancing protocols for customer service staff.
Macromedia, Inc., where Rucker and Menendez joined forces, is now owned by Adobe, Inc. Monkebybrains provides Internet service to 100 Hooper Street, a building that includes Adobe offices.
In 2018, an initiative spearheaded by former Mayor Mark Farrell would’ve made Internet a public utility, similar to water or power, with the City owning the network, partnering with private companies to build and operate it. But with a $2 billion price tag, amid an affordable housing crisis, the plan for universal broadband was parked.
“Open access would be great,” Menendez said. “Keep your eyes on Oakland. They’re saying they want to do a free Internet platform. Cities watch each other. Once people break the ice on open access, I think you will see this in San Francisco. We have more tech mindshare here than anywhere. The housing density is here, and now with the pandemic, people are noticing that fast Internet really is a necessity.”