Sonic CEO Dane Jasper relishes role as net neutrality defender
Sonic CEO Dane Jasper relishes role as net neutrality defender
Dane Jasper dropped out of high school and college. But he’s staying the course in the fight for an open Internet that keeps consumers’ data private.
The CEO of Internet service provider Sonic of Santa Rosa, Jasper has become one of the nation’s leading advocates for regulations that his bigger competitors have pushed to knock down.
“I do feel really lucky to have what I consider is a privileged position as a gate keeper to access the Internet,” Jasper said. “It would be irresponsible to act like we own the Internet and have any right to do anything to the content that comes to and from it.”
Jasper, 45, co-founded Sonic in a back room of his house almost 24 years ago at a time when people who even knew about the Internet logged in using slow dial-up modems. Today, the company has more than 100,000 customers in California — many devoted fans among them — who log in using its high-speed Internet services.
Sonic remains a small regional player battling cable and telecommunications titans like Comcast, Verizon, AT&T and Charter, which dominate the $117 billion U.S. Internet services market, according to the research firm IBISWorld.
But niche companies like Sonic should capture larger shares of that market because they are moving more quickly into regions not served by fast gigabit-fiber service, said Andrew Krabeepetcharat, an IBISWorld business analyst.
And even a small slice of the market can be lucrative. Industry revenues should soar to $143.8 billion by 2023 because “everything from movies and music to video games and television are all going on the Internet,” Krabeepetcharat said.
Sonic is expanding in San Francisco and parts of the East Bay, as customers are drawn to its network of gigabit fiber-optic cables, which can be used to download 100 songs in about three seconds. On those old dial-ups, one song could take a minute.
Jasper has been a long-standing supporter of net neutrality rules. These rules, which the Obama administration put in place and the Federal Communications Commission voted in December to repeal, hold that the Internet should work equally fast and effectively for content providers regardless of how much they can pay. It is both a personal mission and a business marketing tool, and it has helped gain loyal customers like San Francisco resident Riley Steinmetz.
“It was a massive breath of fresh air switching to Sonic,” Steinmetz said in an email. “And the net neutrality stance is also key in why I stay. I feel much more comfortable knowing my ISP is committed to it. They’ve also repeatedly voiced their commitment to keeping data safe and private, which is, again, very important to me as a consumer.”
Sonic, not to be confused with the Sonic fast food drive-in chain, provides Internet and phone services that start at $40 a month, not including fees and equipment charges. Sonic’s biggest market is San Francisco, where Jasper said it can reach about 27 percent of homes.
Sonic has customers from Watsonville to Fort Bragg, and also offers service in Sacramento, Los Angeles and Orange County.
The company has built a reputation of being fair with customers, including respecting privacy rights and net neutrality principles.
Jasper could have chosen to stand with other Internet companies and trade associations, which hailed the FCC’s decision to rescind what they called unnecessary regulations that mandated they treat all Web traffic equally. The big Internet companies have said even with the rules thrown out, they have no plans to block or slowdown online services or charge companies for faster access.
Jasper could have also sided with the industry in backing Congress’ move last year to scrap privacy rules that forced Internet providers to get their customers’ permission before collecting and selling their data.
But he said he’s philosophically opposed to business practices that would infringe on customer’s rights. A 2011 blog post he wrote exposed offers Sonic and other service providers received from companies that would use software to improperly siphon advertising revenue from unsuspecting Web publishers.
“We’ve said this is evil, you can’t do this to people,” he said in an interview.
And as a business strategy, Jasper wants to prevent his competitors from creating an “unlevel playing field” by increasing their revenue from selling privacy data or charging for faster access.
“That makes it challenging for a new market entrant,” he said. “We might align ourselves with other Internet access providers who feel like they have the rights to do whatever they wanted, but I think it is more important to stand up for the consumers.”
Sonic customer Michael Selvidge said he could get faster Internet speeds with a larger company that serves his Oakland neighborhood, “but for more money, and again, money that goes to an evil corporation. Also, Sonic is a Santa Rosa company and has a great, pro net-neutrality stance.”
Steinmetz of San Francisco said she switched because she was tired of “hours-long” service calls and “repeated rate increases with no warning” with her former provider.
“I did have one instance where my Sonic bill went up unexpectedly,” she said. “I called, immediately got connected to billing, identified the problem, and resolved it within 20 minutes.”
Sonic jumped into the national spotlight by ranking second among Internet service providers in a 2016 Consumer Reports customer satisfaction survey, ranking high in value and reliability (a Tennessee municipal broadband provider was first). But because Sonic is so small, Consumer Reports did not have enough respondents to include Sonic again in its 2017 survey.
“When you deliver just a reasonable and decent level of customer service today, people’s expectations are so low and so poor that they react really disproportionally to it,” Jasper said. “They are thrilled by the fact that you answer the phone in a timely way, you were patient, pragmatic and not scripted.”
Jasper was a 21-year-old Santa Rosa Junior College student when he and Scott Doty dropped out to start Sonoma Interconnect, later shortened to Sonic.net. Both had worked part-time installing the college’s dial-up service for faculty and students. The “light bulb” went off when they discovered someone was selling the college’s free Internet access to local high school students after investigating a complaint that one of the high school students was “being rude” online.
“This Internet thing is lots of fun and people are stealing it and we should go start a company,” Jasper said he told Doty, now Sonic’s board president and chief Internet evangelist.
Although he declined to reveal the privately held company’s revenue, Jasper said Sonic turned a profit after three months and has never had an unprofitable quarter. Sonic has 450 employees and should “cross 500 this year,” he said.
“A lot of our success has been the result of lucky timing,” Jasper said. “We didn’t realize that the Internet was going to completely change how people shop, find a job or get married.”