"The reason it is free is because...we want to get a lot of people on it," Larry Alder of Google said during a panel discussion on wireless projects in cities at thehere.
The service, which is fully deployed but not yet available to all Mountain View residents, is a test bed that will help Google understand the technology, Alder said.
He downplayed privacy concerns, saying users only need to have a Google account. "We still don't know who you are. We're not asking for a name or address," Alder said.
Requiring users to have an account gives Google some control to monitor problems. For example, "if the account is abusive, we can turn it off," he said.
The service is limited to transmission speeds of 1 megabit per second, and the contract is not exclusive to Google, meaning other companies can make deals with the city to offer their own service, Alder said.
Google has hung about 350 nodes on city light poles, and they'll serve about 70,000 people in 12 square miles, he said. The data packets travel from node to node until they hit a gateway, which has a bidirectional antenna and sends the data on to one of three building tops at the Google campus. There, the data is aggregated and then sent onto the Internet.
The wireless signal will not necessarily go further than the front window of buildings, and users will have to spend about $100 to buy a Wi-Fi modem to extend the signal into the interior of buildings, Alder said.
Meanwhile, Google has been working with ham radio operators on sharing the spectrum the Wi-Fi network uses, he said. The spectrum is unlicensed, but there are some licensed users who can legally "tell Google and users to turn off," he said.
Alder did not reveal any details about discussions Google is having with the city of San Francisco for a.
That project for lacking adequate consumer privacy safeguards.
The privacy concerns about the Google-EarthLink project are legitimate, said Esme Vos, creator of the Muniwireless.com Web site. The Netherlands, where she lives, learned a hard lesson about the dangers of collecting and permanently retaining personal information about people when Nazis used detailed government records to round up Jews, she said.
Alder said that, in his opinion, the issue is bigger than just Wi-Fi. For instance, "the cell phone company knows I'm right here," he said.
Greg Richardson, managing partner at consultancy Civitium, which is the lead adviser to the City of San Francisco in its negotiations with Google and EarthLink, said the privacy concerns were being addressed in the talks.