Why Cry for Wi-Fi?

Despite all the recent hoopla, Mayor Gavin Newsom's deal last April with Google and EarthLink to offer free wireless Internet service for rich and poor San Franciscans could be a long time coming. That's because the city's "independent" budget analyst unveiled on Jan. 11 a 50-page feasibility report suggesting that the Board of Supervisors — now split about evenly on the deal — shop around before signing off. Or perhaps, the report went on to suggest, the city should ax the idea altogether and consider spending $10 million to build its own Wi-Fi network and $1.5 million a year to maintain it. Regardless, even if it does happen someday, critics say it could be immediately obsolete.

Back when the deal was struck, the private tech companies said their Wi-Fi system could be up and running inside of a year and wouldn't cost the city a cent. In exchange for holding a four-year renewable contract, they'd offer a connection of 300 kilobits per second for free. A hookup at more than three times that speed could be had for $20 a month. Both speeds are fast enough to offer basic services like e-mail and Web surfing, but the slower one won't work for seamless Voice over IP and video streaming — what many consider the future of Net and mobile applications.

The theory is that Google/EarthLink — driven by profit — would upgrade the system as needed for free. But opponents say it's bait-and-switch, because many will need the faster service just to get work done. They also say that Google and EarthLink's exclusive access to 800,000 San Franciscans is like giving away our wireless birthright cheap. After all, the $10 million cost to build the system is pocket change to them.

Better to leave the entire Wi-Fi system up to the private sector, the reportsuggests. With such a private/public model, the report states, "The City assumes no financial risk. The City does not have to be involved with the marketing, deployment, revenue generation and the around-the-clock customer service required to sustain the network."

Since the Board of Supes is already waiting on another report (from Civitium and Columbia Telecommunications Corporation) on the feasibility of laying a fiber-optic line, the budget analyst suggested incorporating its findings into any decision on a Wi-Fi network. And those findings will likely complicate the Google/EarthLink deal — meaning more hearings ... and more waiting. Hell, by the time the city does get a network up and running, we could be connecting to the Web through chips implanted in our necks.

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