Making (Radio) Waves

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

Perhaps, in the way a bullet that only singes your hair is a "missed opportunity." Much smaller cities such as Palo Alto and Alameda started up expensive municipal broadband systems, then lost millions of dollars trying to run them. In San Francisco, a city-owned network would compete with already existing private networks such as cable, telephone lines, Wi-Fi, and yet-unknown technologies that might develop during the decade or more of installing such a system might require.

But because the idea's been adopted by left-leaning supervisors as a way to kill a key mayoral policy initiative, this wasteful city-fiber-optic network pipe dream has become an official part of local "progressivism."

As such, the city fiber-optic network will never be built. But it's a phantom menace that will kill the mayor's much more workable Google-EarthLink Wi-Fi plan.

Loranger has been laying low during the Wi-Fi debate, so far. But that's only because he's been waiting for the right moment to attack.

"People should be concerned about the cumulative effects of all of this microwave radiation being introduced to the city," Loranger said, explaining that a Wi-Fi system would require installing battalions of small antennas on utility poles, which would beam radio waves into people's homes. In some cases the waves would strike sleeping babies, he points out.

"When you add that to the number of existing licensed cellphone antennas, Sutro Tower, the hundreds of thousands of cellphones that are themselves transmitting, and the tens of thousands of Wi-Fi facilities that are in apartments and in people's homes, we think people will be concerned about the health issues," he says. "We haven't had hearings on the public health side of it yet, and we think there should be."

Some time during the next couple of weeks the city's Planning Department will issue a report saying whether or not it's necessary to conduct a study about the Google-EarthLink Wi-Fi plan's effects on the environment.

Loranger will fire back a letter demanding an environmental study of his own devising, in which specialists measure the amount of radio waves beamed into every part of San Francisco. He'll then demand public hearings about whether or not these radio waves are making people sick.

It's doubtful such hearings would produce any sort of useful conclusion. But Loranger will get the hearings, because supervisors are quite accustomed to giving Loranger what he wants.

Health concerns over the effects of radio waves generated by cellphone networks are repeatedly debunked by respected scientists, and then raised again by others, a cycle that's continued since cellphone networks began in the 1970s. Regulators over the world say radio waves don't harm people, and since the 1980s, research has mounted saying such radiation doesn't affect biology. But now and again, studies will pop up saying it's possible cellphone radiation can produce biological effects.

And that's been enough for Loranger to contact and frighten residents where cellphone towers are slated to be built, and get them to flood City Hall with complaints. So far, he's defeated 13 out of 15 cell towers that have come before the Board of Supervisors during recent years, forcing companies such as Verizon and T-Mobile to stop installing them altogether. Instead, they've been placing miniature torso-sized antennas on stores and apartment buildings. Earlier this year, Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin pressured cell companies to stop building those mini-antennas, too.

As a proven giant killer, Loranger will demolish whatever's left of Newsom's free, citywide wireless plan.

But it didn't have to be this way.

Back in 2004, when Tom Ammiano was floating his inoperable fiber-optic plan, Newsom needn't have blown him off as he did. Instead, Newsom could have patted Ammiano on the back for his great idea, and included a proposed city-owned network as one contestant in a bidding competition for S.F. broadband. And there it would have died on the merits.

And when it did, Newsom could have made a big deal of trying to salvage some of Ammiano's boondoggle with the supervisors' help — perhaps by incorporating the small amounts of fiber-optic cable now in the city's purview into whatever system got built. Then he should have made Ammiano vice mayor for technology, much like he made his former opponent Angela Alioto vice-mayor of homelessness back in 2003.

Sadly, Newsom took a different path.

He tried to sell free Wi-Fi as a go-alone no-brainer, and as an anti-poverty initiative; in 2004, you'll recall, Newsom was still claiming that he liked to hang around in the projects and play pickup basketball. Keeping with the theme, citywide Wi-Fi was touted as mostly aimed at residents of S.F. subsidized housing projects.

But Newsom needed a pro-Wi-Fi coalition broader than the PR team responsible for his phony man-o-the-poor image. There are actually hundreds of thousands of San Franciscans who believe wide broadband access is crucial to social empowerment and economic growth, and they were left out of the loop.

Now, Newsom is scurrying between personal appearances to tout his wireless plan, hoping he can salvage it somehow.

But it's as good as dead. And in politics, death of a major policy initiative is noticed by those keeping score.

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