Though San Francisco has offered free wifi in parks and along Market Street since 2013, users have been hard to find. The Department of Technology reported in December 2015 that the city's #SFWiFi network was averaging only about 314,000 weekly login sessions, with even fewer daily users (6,000) taking advantage of the free wifi available at city buildings.
And given the way the Market Street wifi works — a user who logs in to an access point at Third Street, loses the signal and logs back in at Fifth Street would count as two “sessions” — the number of unique users was likely much lower. Worse, whenever there was a big event, like Pride or a Giants World Series parade, #SFWiFi experienced “system-wide failures,” DT staffer Skip Thiesen wrote in an email last year obtained by SF Weekly via a public records request.
So ahead of Super Bowl 50, San Francisco wanted a signal boost for the crowds — and local tech giant Cisco was there to help. Beginning last February, Cisco lobbyists met repeatedly with Miguel Gamiño, the city's chief information officer and head of the city's Department of Technology, to set up a wifi network on Market Street for the Super Bowl. After 15 meetings and numerous emails — in which Cisco lobbyist Leah Lewis was sure to include links to positive coverage of other cities' tech initiatives — the city received a gift of 75 Cisco wifi access points in December, blanketing Market Street in free wifi.
But Market Street already had hardware for free wifi, donated to the city by Ruckus, a Cisco competitor. No matter: Beginning the week after Christmas, DT work crews spent most of January swapping out the still-functional Ruckus radios for the newer Cisco ones. (The Ruckus radios were moved elsewhere in the wifi network.)
The work meant #SFWiFi went down entirely for six days in late January in order to get the Cisco-powered network ready in time for the crowds at Super Bowl City.
For the week of Jan. 31 to Feb. 5, DT reported 341,331 unique users on #SFWiFi, according to department spokeswoman Kathleen Clark, by far the highest total ever in the roughly three years that the city has offered free wifi.
But not everyone was thrilled with the Cisco gift. Other city departments, including Muni and the Public Utilities Commission, had to inquire with DT as to the owner and purpose of the new equipment, placed on their street poles without their knowledge. And according to an anonymous Department of Technology employee who contacted SF Weekly, the whole project was a boondoggle — a waste of staff time to remove good equipment for just-as-good equipment, all in order to reward a company for lobbying.
And the job wasn't entirely free. Connecting the Super Bowl fan village with cable internet cost the city at least $68,000; Clark did not have a cost estimate for the DT staff time required to install the Cisco routers and get it ready for a major event with days to spare.
But anyone doubting the project's importance should know it's up for an award. The project and Gamiño are in the running for the award of “Innovation of the Year” from an organization called State Scoop 50. Not that that's helping disgruntled employees. “Everyone at DT,” the anonymous employee says, “is hoping he will leave and go work for Cisco.”
In a way, he already did.