Making (Radio) Waves

The mayor's Wi-Fi plan is about to have its signal blocked by a group of activists

Thin, polite, deliberate, and articulate Doug Loranger offers me a seat in his Western Addition flat and turns on a television set to a video he made promoting his quest to halt construction of cellular telephone antennas.

Loranger feels so strongly that radio emissions from the towers might cause ailments such as brain cancer that fighting them has become a time-consuming hobby. He drew on skills learned as a film school student to create this core public-relations tool, in which he interviews other San Franciscans opposed to radio-wave propagation, and shows how they fought cell tower construction.

For all the passion behind Loranger's belief, however, I was perplexed by how long it took his documentary to cut to the chase.

Instead of hearing all about cellphone-tower death rays, minutes dragged by as I learned about how a middle-aged Chinese community activist volunteers as a City Hall docent, and about the different jobs a computer specialist had held during the last couple decades.

Then it occurred to me: Loranger seemed to be showing viewers that his anti-radio-wave activist friends weren't crazy. They had normal lives, jobs, and friends. Very few scientists who study the issue believe radio waves from cellphone towers are dangerous. So anti-radio-wave activists are sometimes lumped together with UFO and other conspiracy nuts.

My next thought: I wondered if Gavin Newsom and his pal Sergey Brin know that these public-image-impaired San Franciscans are poised to kick their asses. Loranger has plans to strike a deathblow against a mayor-backed plan whereby Google and EarthLink would provide free Wi-Fi Internet access citywide. Loranger and his friends fear the Wi-Fi plan would broadcast more hated radio waves.

Separately, Loranger's cause is aided by activists who believe, for reasons having nothing to do with radio waves, that it would be better to install an expensive, city-owned fiber network. They have obtained backing on the Board of Supervisors to kill the mayor's Wi-Fi plan.

This is a bummer for San Francisco. Here in the world's most Internet-hooked city, free citywide Wi-Fi would have been like free Guinness for Dubliners.

But it's also fitting justice for Newsom, who earned his current political popularity based on a 2004 symbolic protest about gay marriage, which produced no tangible results. Yet he somehow didn't learn that San Franciscans' zest for aimless rebellion is a two-edged sword. He never anticipated, and now doesn't know what to do about, two separate, misguided citizen movements working to shut down his free Wi-Fi plan.

By failing to learn from his own social-protest success, Newsom may go down in history as so inept he couldn't execute a plan to give away what amounts to free beer.

In 2004, our just-elected mayor gained national notoriety by announcing that he would put free high-speed Internet in every pot. The idea seemed downright magical. San Francisco was a tech capital. The mayor was young and attractive. Magazine editors scheduled Newsom photo shoots.

After three years of fits, starts, and negotiations, the mayor announced a contract in January between the city, EarthLink and Google, by which EarthLink would pay the city $2 million over four years for the right to build, own, and maintain a citywide Wi-Fi network. Google would provide free Internet access at a relatively slow speed sufficient for Web browsing and e-mail. For a $22 upcharge, EarthLink would provide a faster service useful for things such as Internet telephony, videos, and such.

To my mind, that's fantastic. I pay $60 per month now for high-speed Internet. The system Newsom's backing would force players such as Comcast and SBC to swiftly mark down their prices to the $20 range. A pricing and features war would ensue. The resulting universal broadband would in turn create opportunities for new Internet business models, perhaps spawning a 1990s-like job boom.

However, for every good new thing in San Francisco, there is an army of protesters angry that it's not the perfect thing.

Yet Newsom ignored this fact. He didn't hold meetings with members of the Board of Supervisors to negotiate the shape his Wi-Fi plan would take, nor give them any opportunities to take credit for some of it themselves.

Most of the Board is staffed by Newsom's political opponents who are eager to the possibility of killing policies with his name-stamp on them, even good ones.

In that spirit, Supervisors Jake McGoldrick and Tom Ammiano are working separately from Loranger to kill Newsom's Wi-Fi plan. In its place, they're attempting to revive a plan Ammiano floated in 2004 to create a city-owned fiber-optic cable network to compete with private networks already in place.

Board members ordered the city budget analyst to study the idea, and he issued a report saying the idea was theoretically viable. A private nonprofit group is also studying the idea at S.F. officials' behest.

When I looked into Ammiano's plan back in 2004, I found that experts in the field of city-owned communications networks said laying a city-owned fiber-optic would be an expensive, unworkable boondoggle in San Francisco.

Ammiano's own aide referred me to experts who ended up explaining that the plan couldn't possibly work. Since then, neither McGoldrick nor Ammiano has said anything to convince me that his current idea is different than the pointless money pit proposed in 2004. Instead, Ammiano and McGoldrick have been saying Newsom's failure to support his 2004 plan to spend millions of tax dollars laying fiber-optic cable alongside sewer lines was a "missed opportunity."

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