Phone Jack: The Promise of a Wi-Fi City is Beset by Analog-Era Problems

Free Wi-fi came to Market Street last month with all the fanfare of a coronation. It didn't quite approach the citywide installment plan that former Mayor Gavin Newsom and former Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin devised in 2007, but it was certainly a step forward. Coupled with a July installment plan to bring Internet service to the city's parks, the mid-Market rollout would give more pedestrians the luxury of traversing San Francisco's main retail corridor with their heads buried in their devices. More importantly, the city could finally align its amenities with its ascendant economy.

Sort of.

After several unsuccessful attempts to join the free network — via a slightly eviscerated but nonetheless functional iPhone 4S — this reporter called the city's Department of Technology for help. Department spokesman Ron Vinson expressed surprise at the scattershot service, questioned the quality of said iPhone, and then recommended an Internet primer on Wi-fi.

"You're our first complaint," he said, adding that he'd whipped out a laptop while eating lunch around Seventh and Market streets that same afternoon, and found the Wi-fi service perfectly adequate.

In fact, local politico John Rizzo also groused about spotty service shortly after the Wi-fi rollout. "Free Wi-fi on Market Street?" he tweeted on Jan. 5. "Doesn't work in shops & merchants warn me not to use outdoors due to rampant device theft."

Rizzo explains, later, that he'd tried to access Levi's website to order a pair of jeans that weren't available in the Market Street store, but clerks warned against it. "They said, 'Oh, the Wi-fi doesn't work in our shops,'" Rizzo says. "So I said, 'OK, I'll go outside.' And then they said, 'Oh, I wouldn't do that if I were you.'"

Merchants at Levi's, Old Navy, and the Adidas store all confirm that brick-and-mortar shops on Market comprise a vast Wi-fi desert. In contrast, the shops inside Westfield mall have ample free Wi-fi, and even more ample opportunity to snatch devices from the people playing with them. There's even an ecoATM kiosk on the mall's bottom floor that allows users to exchange smartphones for cash — though various security features make it a poor place to fence a stolen phone.

For the bravest among us, there's the outdoor service, which should work perfectly, provided you're not attempting to beam Wi-fi from a busted 4S. You can always use a backup computer to consult Vinson's webpage. Or you can call the Department of Technology to troubleshoot the problem. Or you can be one of those pedestrians staring distractedly at an iPhone, in an area known for rampant iPhone theft.

The future is upon us.

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Gus Medina
Gus Medina

yes i was punched in the face on 6th and market for my phone.. #ratchet

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