Free Wi-Fi in S.F. more than flipping a switch

San Francisco, with its steep hills and urban valleys, will be a challenge to EarthLink and Google's ambitious project. Video: Ups and downs of San Francisco

Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco. Will EarthLink and Google leave a barrel of money trying to deliver universal Wi-Fi access to the hilly city's 740,000 residents?

San Francisco politicians, like many of their counterparts in cities throughout the country, view affordable broadband access for all citizens as essential, like providing water or electricity. In October 2004, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom announced that he intended to provide free wireless access for the city.

He's trying to fill a gap in the city's existing, piecemeal Wi-Fi network. San Francisco is already filled with hundreds of smaller Wi-Fi hotspots offered through coffee shops, retailers or neighborhood groups. But Chris Vein, executive director of the city's department of telecom and information services, said that the goal of the citywide Wi-Fi project is to bring free "universal" Wi-Fi to residents.

"The Wi-Fi hot spots today are not covering all 49 square miles and don't reach out to poorer areas," he said in an interview with CNET

In April, the city announced that it had

Critics wonder: Is that possible in a city with downtown high-rises and a 900-foot hill smack in the middle?

The EarthLink/Google plan includes two main options for broadband service: One allows subscribers to pay about $20 per month for a 1Mbps connection from EarthLink or another Internet service provider leasing capacity on the Wi-Fi network. The second option allows anyone to get 300Kbps download service for free in exchange for viewing local advertisements through Google.

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Video: Ups and downs of San Francisco
Google and EarthLink have partnered in a project to bring universal Wi-Fi to San Francisco. Here, a view of the hilly terrain challenging the install.

EarthLink said it expects the project to run to between $6 million and $8 million in initial costs, which include attaching radios and receivers to utility poles throughout the city. Within 10 years it expects the whole network, complete with upgrades and maintenance, to cost about $15 million.

Finer financial details of the project haven't been made public, but the plan calls for EarthLink and Google to contribute to the initial cost of building the network. It's not clear what the split between the two companies will be. Once the network is built, Google will pay EarthLink for access to the network on a wholesale basis. In order to make access free to people in San Francisco, Google will use revenue generated from local advertisements to pay for access to the EarthLink network.

San Francisco may well be one of several test markets for Google and local ads. Finding local information over the Internet is a highly fragmented business, divided among search engines, interactive yellow pages, local business sites, wireless carriers and so on. Google wants to pull those strands together and make targeted, useful ads a reality.

Ad test market

Google and Yahoo are after the same local ad dollars. But the two companies are making different bets as to how consumers will access digital data ultimately. Yahoo, for example, has teamed with local phone companies to be the default search destination when someone signs up for the $19.95 Digital Subsciber Line (DSL) service. Meanwhile, Google is teaming with EarthLink (and likely others) to be the default provider of ad-supported Wi-Fi. Its projects in Mountain View, Calif., and San Francisco are likely be just the beginning.

While the Wi-Fi plan sounds compelling to many, some critics say EarthLink has underestimated the cost and overestimated its ability to reach most of San Francisco's residents. Others are skeptical that Google will be able to sustain its free model with advertisements alone.

Among the technical concerns are San Francisco's famous hills and tall buildings that get in the way of radio waves. Just finding adequate cell phone service can be a hassle in certain parts of the city.

Don Berryman, executive vice president of EarthLink in charge of municipal wireless deployments, acknowledges that deploying Wi-Fi in San Francisco will be tricky.

"I would never say that San Francisco will be an easy place to deploy Wi-Fi," Berryman said. "There will be a number of challenges. But I think most of the critics aren't looking at today's technology. We aren't talking about using Linksys routers to set up a hotspot. These are high-powered radios that send signals 600 to 1,000 feet."

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