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Google in San Francisco: 'Wireless overlord'?

Responding to a proposal to blanket the city with free wireless Net service, some fret about privacy, others welcome the shake-up.

While some people worried about privacy issues, others on Saturday praised Google's proposal to blanket San Francisco with free wireless high-speed Internet access, saying it will help bring fast Web connections to more people in more places for less money than they are paying now.

Google's bid was a response to a request for proposals from San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's office to provide the service for the nearly 750,000 residents of the city, Google spokesman Nate Tyler confirmed on Saturday.

The proposal is limited to San Francisco, and Google does not have any plans to expand it beyond the Bay Area, he said. Google already is testing free wireless Web service in two locations near its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters and is participating in a Wi-Fi hot spot in downtown San Francisco.

It was unclear when city officials would decide whom to choose from a group of bids, but reports said the service is expected to begin next year.

"It is also an opportunity to make San Francisco a test-ground for new location-based applications and services that enable people to find relevant information exactly when and where they need it," Tyler said. "We anticipate that the services we develop on this network will ultimately benefit end users and Google partners."

That prospect has some people concerned. "They will know much more information about your activities" than they can glean from a stationary PC, Ira Victor, managing partner for security information firm Data Clone Labs, said in an interview.

"There are still a lot of unanswered questions, the most important being related to privacy," wrote blogger Charles Jade on the Ars Technica Web site. "Will Google be watching users? It's unlikely a city like San Francisco with a large contingent of professional protesters and unreconstructed communists would support such a compromise, but we will know shortly."

Many others, however, said Google's involvement will shake up a telecom industry that has been slow to react to the Internet and reluctant to be price-conscious.

"How long before it starts deploying such networks across other major U.S. cities? Kind of turns the ISP model of charging for Internet access on its head. Sure, there will be a market for those who want higher bandwidth but if what is on offer is good enough, why pay for more?" penned blogger Simon Buckle.

"I think this approach will become more common in the future," Buckle said. "We are moving towards a services-based model: The basic offering is free but if you want more, whether it's bandwidth or features, you have to pay for it."

Google could even be making waves in Congress, one blogger speculated.

"Google's move to enter the broadband access market could even impact developments in Congress, which is considering various approaches to a Telecom Act rewrite," wrote Mitch Shapiro on the IP & Democracy Web site. "Among the more contentious issues addressed by various draft bills are network neutrality, municipal broadband and privacy, all of which are raised--and with a somewhat novel twist--by Google's Wi-Fi proposal."

Other bloggers were pleased to hear the service would be free and offer transmission speeds of about 300 kilobits per second, which is much faster than traditional dial-up Internet access.

"300k for free is not bad. The next question is when does this come to other major cities? WTG (way to go) Google!" wrote one blogger on the Make You Go Hmm Web site.

Citizen journalism advocate Dan Gillmor concluded that the benefits outweigh the risks.

"The word 'free' in this context is problematic. Google expects more than incurring costs from this test bed, and it'll be keeping all kinds of data about what people do on the network. (Yes, there's that Google-versus-privacy question again; it just keeps coming up.)," he wrote in his blog.

"Still, the innovation potential--or at least disruption potential--is enormous. I'm looking forward to seeing what Google does with this, especially in connection with its expanding voice offering. Maybe the incumbent telecom biggies, SBC and Comcast, have something to worry about; wouldn't that be great?" Gillmor wrote.

Google is driving innovation, which is good for the industry and consumers, bloggers, in general, agreed.

"Google again is out in front as the most talked about tech company making other tech companies squirm, and I, for one, welcome our new wireless overlords," wrote Ars Technica blogger Jade.