San Francisco's Wi-Fi dream lives on

The city's CIO says it is just taking a breather while it figures how it can build a citywide wireless network that can provide free access to all.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
4 min read

Citywide Wi-Fi is not dead in San Francisco.

At least that's what the city's chief information officer Chris Vein said Monday at a panel at the MuniWireless conference in Santa Clara, Calif.

Vein told attendees at the conference that the city is simply "taking a deep breath" while it figures out its next step.

"Nothing has changed in terms of our strategy," he said. "A lot has happened in the last three years, so we are at the stage now where we're listening and learning to figure out what our next move should be."

That said, Vein added that he fully expects the initiative to move forward and take shape in the Mayor Gavin Newsom's next term. Newsom, who in 2004 put forth the idea of offering free Wi-Fi access to all citizens, is expected to easily win his re-election campaign in November. And Vein said that the mayor expects to have an even more "audacious" term this time around.

In August it looked like San Francisco's Wi-Fi dreams were dead in the water. EarthLink, which had won the contract to build and operate the network, wriggled out of the deal as its new CEO and company restructured the company and basically laid off half of its staff. As part of the restructuring, the company greatly scaled back its Wi-Fi efforts.

Google, which was going to provide the advertising to support the free tier of service, is also out of the deal. Vein said he hasn't heard much from Google and is not in talks with the company or anyone else to kick-start the effort.

But the network will live on, he said. Citizens of San Francisco will vote on whether they want a citywide Wi-Fi network in November, when the issue is put up as a nonbinding ballot initiative. Despite many community based Wi-Fi efforts, many in San Francisco expect the ballot to pass easily.

But there are still many big questions that must be answered. For example, what will the San Francisco network look like? Who will own it and operate it? And what kinds of services will be available?

Mayor Newsom has gone on record several times saying that he believes a public/private partnership, like the one the city struck with EarthLink and Google is the answer. But some people on the Board of Supervisors would like to see the city take more ownership of the network to ensure control of the infrastructure.

San Francisco is one of many cities that have been forced to pull back on plans to build a citywide network. The main reason is finding a business model to support such networks. EarthLink clearly doesn't see the financial upside to a deal in which it bears most of the expense and risk to build the network.

San Francisco's main reason for building the Wi-Fi network is to bridge the digital divide and provide low-income citizens with affordable broadband access. Because the social merits of building and operating such a Wi-Fi network is a tough sell to many private partners, some cities are making public safety or improved government efficiency as their primary focus for building new networks. And they are promising to be anchor tenants, who guarantee service providers a set amount of business every year for using the network.

That's exactly what cities such as Minneapolis, Minn., and Providence, R.I. Minneapolis has committed to being an anchor tenant for 10 years. Its Wi-Fi network was put to the test this summer when it helped with recovery efforts during the aftermath of a major bridge collapse. And Providence uses a Wi-Fi network to help police better patrol city streets. Other cities are using Wi-Fi for remote surveillance, controlling traffic, lights and automatically reading parking and water meters.

Vein said that those kinds of applications are also being considered for San Francisco. In fact, he sees big potential in having city building inspectors use handheld Wi-Fi devices to access records and file reports remotely while they are in the field. He said that some of these applications will likely be addressed as part of the city's plans for the wireless network.

But he emphasized that bridging the digital divide through free or low-cost broadband access would continue to be the city's main focus in pushing the initiative forward. In part, providing free Wi-Fi access is an easier to sell politically in San Francisco, a city that has always kept the needs of poor and underprivileged citizens as a top priority. By contrast, pushing the project as a way to improve government efficiency could be viewed more suspiciously.

"In a city like San Francisco, there are some 200,000 people who are without broadband," he said. "And there are a lot of race and socioeconomic issues that come up as a part of this that politicians often need to address."

Whatever the final plan ends up being, Vein said that many of the issues and concerns that were brought up during the EarthLink negotiations will still be there and will need to be addressed.

"The same challenges of addressing privacy, health, and security concerns will still be there regardless of the business model and technology used," he said. "So we need to come together to address those concerns."