Google faces obstacles in S.F. Wi-Fi bid

Lawsuits or legislation could stymie deal, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom says.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
4 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--Google is the celebrity runner in San Francisco's race to become the first U.S. city with affordable or free wireless access to the Internet--but any such deal faces likely lawsuits or legislation, Mayor Gavin Newsom said Monday.

Among other dissenters, phone giants SBC Communications and Verizon Communications and cable companies such as Comcast have publicly and privately criticized the city's project, calling it "foolhardy" given that low-cost access to the Internet is already widely available to the public in San Francisco, Newsom said during a press conference at City Hall.

"Either they're right, or we're onto something," Newsom said, adding a strong note of confidence in his plan to tear down the digital divide between poor and wealthy people's access to broadband.

Locating local internet providers

"This is inevitable; it's long overdue; and the public has a fundamental right to have access to information," Newsom said.

In August, Newsom's office sent out a request for a proposal and comments to the private sector for building a Wi-Fi network that would give "every corner" of San Francisco wireless access to the Internet, Newsom said. The process was finalized Friday, and the city received 26 proposals from a range of companies, including Internet service provider EarthLink, San Francisco wireless upstart Feeva and cell phone company Cingular. The city also receive 280 comments that either promoted or derided the plan.

Locating local internet providers

Other notable companies submitting proposals include Ericsson, Motorola, Nortel, SeaKay/Cisco, Symbol Technologies, SkyTel, Extreme Networks, GigaBeam and Metro-Fi.

Other city projects to provide free or subsidized broadband have faced political hardship. Philadelphia's long-running project to offer affordable high-speed Internet access to low-income families was threatened when Pennsylvania's governor signed legislation barring cities and townships from providing any broadband or wireless services to the public if a fee is charged. But a last-minute compromise in the bill allowed Philadelphia's ambitious network to proceed as planned.

Under the signed law, municipal governments are permitted to go ahead with their projects if the local government "has submitted a written request" to the local telephone company, and if that company declines to offer the service. One Philadelphia government official said Verizon agreed to waive its right of first refusal and let the city project proceed.

Wireless Philadephia, the nonprofit hired to implement the city project, this week is expected to decide between EarthLink and Hewlett-Packard to provide the service. The project is expected to cost between $15 million and $18 million. Other cities testing the waters of free public Wi-Fi include Manassas, Va., Kutztown, Penn., and St. Cloud, Fla.

Chris Vein, director of the department of technology and information services for San Francisco, said that he has yet to examine the details of every proposal, but that they run the gamut of possibilities. The project could be privatized, a public-private venture or a municipally owned project, Newsom said. All considered proposals would cost San Francisco taxpayers "little or nothing," he said.

Neither Vein nor Newsom would provide details of any one proposal, given that they may include trade secrets, but he outlined some options.

A proposal from Google, for example, would deliver free construction of a Wi-Fi network. At least one company Vein would not name proposed to design, build and implement a Wi-Fi network at no cost to the city, and then provide a revenue stream to San Francisco, too. That company has proposed selling advertising as a means to fund the project, Vein said.

However, consumer privacy is a concern, Newsom said in response to a question at the conference about the possibility that companies providing Wi-Fi access would be looking to gather data on the location of users to deliver ads, in an example of the value of such information.

Newsom's office will form a five- to seven-person committee, which includes Vein, to analyze the proposals and make recommendations on them within the next three weeks. After that time, the committee will make specific requests for information for a network.

The goal, Vein said, is to have a "cloud" of Wi-Fi coverage over San Francisco that would include a collection of antennae that provides connectivity. However, because of San Francisco's hilly terrain, there are significant challenges and considerations for providing blanket coverage. Connectivity through fiber, WiMax technology and new cell towers are all considerations.

Vein and Newsom suggested that the network would be up and running by sometime in 2006; the mayor said it's feasible that construction could start in the next five to six months.

Newsom said he envisions a fast network that will bring fast access to the police department, emergency response teams and other public city officials. In addition, he expects the move will bolster San Francisco's image of being a technology leader. The United States has fallen to 16th among the top countries with broadband access, he said, causing the country to lose its edge. "If San Francisco is going to be competitive...then it needs to provide competitive tools," he said.

However, there are rumblings that a bill could be drafted to block the project. Already, there are Web sites and blogs set up to pre-empt this measure on a federal level. And Newsom said he expects lawsuits and federal legislation will attempt to quash the effort.