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Google forging ahead with Wi-Fi efforts

Company says free service in its Silicon Valley hometown will launch this year, and discusses possible ads in San Francisco service.

Google will begin a phased rollout of a free wireless Net access service in its hometown of Mountain View, Calif., this summer and is still hammering out details with San Francisco officials for its citywide Wi-Fi service there.

Testers who volunteer to offer feedback for the Mountain View project will be able to sign up for Wi-Fi starting sometime this summer, and the service will be widely available to the public later this year, Chris Sacca, head of special initiatives at Google, said Wednesday.

"The Mountain View network rollout is on track to be completed by (the end of) June," Sacca said. Google will operate the network itself and has partnered with wireless technology providers, equipment vendors and integration providers to design, build and install the network, he said.

"We are going to be an ISP here in Mountain View," Sacca said, adding that there are no plans at this time to put ads on the service.

Meanwhile, Google's free Wi-Fi service in San Francisco may or may not have advertisements, he said. "If we get to the point that we decide that providing ads to end users is a benefit, then we might do it," he said. Ads are "not driving this...For us it is much more of an experiment and a lofty social benefit."

He could not say when deployment might begin.

Last year, San Francisco began a process of soliciting bids from potential providers of a free Wi-Fi service that would blanket the city's nearly 49-square miles. City officials announced in April that they had chosen the Google-EarthLink bid.

EarthLink will charge an undetermined monthly price for a premium service with transmission speeds of up to 1 megabit per second to 3mbps. Google will offer a free service running at about 300 kilobits per second.

Addressing concerns that the Wi-Fi service won't be able to cover the entire city or reach deep enough into buildings, Sacca said the city may have to add more wireless access points on poles, and customers may have to use devices that will extend the Wi-Fi signal from the front rooms of buildings into interior spaces. Such devices would be free for users of EarthLink's premium service and could cost $50 or less for users of the free Google-provided service, he said.

As far as privacy concerns go, the service will require only a username, which will most likely be an e-mail address, and a password, less information than existing cable and DSL (digital subscriber line) services require, Sacca said.

Google will not tie content delivered to systems to any personally identifiable information but may offer data, like locations of gas stations, restaurant reviews and movie times and locations, based on what neighborhood the user is in, he said.

"The network is not specifically designed to target based on anyone's information," Sacca said. It is intended to introduce local relevant content to users if that content would be made more relevant with the awareness of where the user is."

Critics have complained about the proposal's lack of privacy safeguards. released a report that found that among the original six proposals from bidders, the Google-EarthLink pitch was among the worst in addressing privacy concerns.

San Francisco officials said they would during the talks. The city's representative for the Wi-Fi project did not return a call seeking comment.

Kurt Opsahl, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said he still had questions about how secure user data would be under the proposal. For instance, he wondered how long Google would keep data on user activities, which would be subject to subpoenas from the government and third parties, and he said that a user's email address could be considered personally identifiable information.

"Without more information on the record retention policies and how much of this info is tied together on the back-end it is hard to make a full assessment of what the privacy is," he said.

However, users don't have to use their real e-mail address as their username, they can make something up that is not linked to them in any way, Google said. In addition, users must log in to get onto the system, which helps prevent spam on the network, but can log out once they are on and surf the Web anonymously, Google said.

Despite a said it would team with Google on Wi-Fi bids in other cities, Sacca said Google was not going after any additional cities. "Our aspiration is not to be the world's ISP," he said. "We really started this project as an opportunity to learn, and learn what we can do to evolve our applications for the benefit of end users."

Sacca also addressed concerns that consumers would be exposed to radiation from the frequency being emitted from wireless radio equipment. "The radios we are using are extremely low power...1 watt," he said. "The mobile device on your hip is dozens and dozens of times stronger than our radios for the Wi-Fi network."