While San Francisco's plan for municipal wifi may have stalled after Earthlink decided to abandon the project amidst corporate restructuring, the city's desire for free city-wide wifi was affirmed on November 6 when 62% of voters voiced their support for the original proposal. It's unclear whether the city will ever get their free wifi, but the city has voiced their desire to be able to log in anytime, anywhere and there do seem to be a few ways for this to still happen even without Earthlink on board.
It sounds silly, but San Francisco is Apple country. With a combined area of just 7x7 miles, there are three Apple Retail Stores (one of which just opened this past Friday) that are almost always crowded, Macbooks seem to outnumber PCs at every coffee shop, and the iPhones was already ubiquitous the moment it launched. With the iPod Touch being dependent on accessible wifi and the iPhone stiffled by AT&T's slow network speeds, San Francisco seems like the perfect opportunity to demonstrate how powerful these gadgets can be in a city with universal wireless access.
The benefits for Apple would be significant. Those living in San Francisco would have another incentive to upgrade to an iPod Touch or the iPhone, and the PR opportunities would be enormous. Apple's market share in the bay area would continue to climb, and the company would be able to push their airport technology and continue to build their global brand in association with San Francisco.
Of course, Apple would probably be disinclined to jump into this endeavor alone. There are a number of companies that are obvious choices to partner with Apple in connecting the entire city, but none of them have the same caliber of support amongst bay area residents.
Google could easily come on as a partner: they have the ad network that could make the initiative sustainable, but the privacy concerns that plagued the first iteration would obviously continue. AT&T is another possibility, but their track record is far spottier than Google's; many people in San Francisco wouldn't feel comfortable surfing on an AT&T network, but the telco is probably the most natural partner for such a project.
With Comcast and AT&T battling over the high-speed internet consumers, AT&T could offer a full-speed universal wifi connection to all of its DSL and mobile customers while providing a throttled connection to everyone for free. Doing so would provide a competitive advantage over Comcast, and would also help make up for the slower speed of DSL when compared to cable.
Although the Google-Earthlink wifi deal generated significant criticism, most of the people who opposed the partnership were still largely in favor of bringing high-speed wireless internet to all San Franciscans. Some were concerned about Google's obsession with tracking users, many vocalized their opposition to the crippled speed that would come with the free service and still others simply felt that the best way to bring high-speed internet to everyone would be through an expansion of the City's existing fiber optic network. Yes, there were a few that opposed the plan because it would increase the amount of radio waves in the air, but these detractors seemed to make up a very small minority.
I still contend that the best solution is for the City to expand its fiber optic cabling and build a wireless network on the fiber network that is owned and maintained by the City. Doing so will cost a significant amount of tax-payer's money up front, but in the long run, the City would likely be able to recoup this investment by selling bandwidth to various companies.
While I don't feel that a network backed by Apple is the ideal solution for universal wifi, it's a deal that I could probably feel good about and one that would likely be quite popular with most people in San Francisco.