Wifi wars

Pub date December 26, 2006
WriterSarah Phelan

› sarah@sfbg.com

Representatives of Google and EarthLink showed up at the Glen Park Recreation Center on Dec. 7 to push their plan to blanket the city with a wireless network they claim will provide free Internet for all. It was one of a dozen such dog and pony shows around the city this fall as the proposal heads for a decision by the Board of Supervisors, which will also consider municipally controlled alternatives to this public-private partnership.

Google’s Dan Zweifach kicked off the presentation by describing a world in which "you can make an international call for free, download music in Golden Gate Park, or check the Muni schedule from a bus station."

It’s an intriguing concept that faces challenges unique to San Francisco’s hilly, fog-prone, and built-out topography, which could interfere with wi-fi signals. To address these challenges, EarthLink’s Stephen Salinger told the audience of a dozen, his company plans to affix 40 wi-fi nodes (boxes that exchange signals with computers and other wi-fi devices) per square mile atop 1,500 light poles citywide.

At least that’s the idea. "If the poles aren’t city-owned resources, we have to negotiate with the private owner," Salinger explained, noting that the city owns about half the light poles and Pacific Gas and Electric owns the rest.

The proposed wi-fi blanket is projected to cost $8 million to $10 million to build and millions more to manage, with EarthLink in charge of the nodes and Google buying bandwidth from EarthLink so it can offer free wi-fi access throughout San Francisco’s almost 50-square-mile service area.

But what exactly does free wi-fi access mean? According to Zweifach and Salinger, access will be "completely free to the city and to taxpayers," just as Mayor Gavin Newsom promised in 2004. Unless, that is, people want faster access, in which case they can shell out $20 a month for EarthLink’s premium service.

"At 300 kbps, the basic service should be fast enough to download music or videos, but it could be a little slower, which is why we have the premium service," Salinger said. "The more people connect, the more speed and quality decreases."

Whether the free service will actually be a bait and switch is just one of many concerns critics of the proposal have raised. Some don’t trust the profit-driven corporations, some don’t like the wi-fi technology, and others criticize the sometimes-secretive process that led to the selection of Google and EarthLink. The supervisors have meanwhile ordered studies for a municipal broadband system and a municipal wi-fi system, both due back early in 2007, about the time when the Google-EarthLink system is expected to come to the board for approval.

The community meetings were designed to address myriad concerns, such as whether the wi-fi system will come with enough training and support so all residents will be able to use it. "We’ll partner with local businesses and individuals who want to get involved," Zweifach said. "We have 109 languages that people will be able to access. We’ll provide multilingual training."

That said, Zweifach noted that Google is only pledging online tech support, meaning those wanting phone support will have to sign up for EarthLink’s premium service.

Grilled about privacy concerns, Zweifach claimed, "We don’t track or look at Web sites that anyone visits, but we do look at the number of computers accessing a node. But there’s not much personal information needed to access the service. Just an e-mail address, a user name, and a password, so it’s more anonymous than most."

"But if you’re using our premium service, we’ll have your billing information," Salinger interjected, adding that with 5.3 million customers, "EarthLink is at the forefront of protecting privacy."

When a self-professed cancer survivor in the Glen Canyon audience accused Zweifach and Salinger of "discussing everything except health effects of blanketing SF with electromagnetic radiation," Zweifach countered that "wi-fi nodes are low-power devices, much like garage door monitors, which, if you were at the same level at a distance of 10 feet, would have 100 times less radiation than a cell phone. At streetlamp level, and therefore not on the same level as people, they have 1,000 times less radiation."

Reached by phone the following week, Ron Vinzon, head of the city’s Department of Telecommunications and Information Services, waxed enthusiastic about free wi-fi, a concept Newsom has promoted since his October 2004 State of the City speech.

"DTIS’s goal is to make sure we have ubiquitous service 24-7, whether you’re on the top of Twin Peaks or over at Cayuga Park," Vinzon told the Guardian. "We’re going to do the necessary testing to make sure it works well in all areas of San Francisco and that the entire city has reliable service. The only issue will be speed, not access."

But while Google-EarthLink hopes to secure a four-year contract with an option to renew three times, Vinzon said the city wants a flexible deal, "so that in four years we can do another needs assessment and the city would have the option to buy out EarthLink’s network at a fair market rate."

Asked about the possibility of an alternative digital universe in which the city would deliver free Internet access via municipally owned fiber-optic lines, Vinzon sounded slightly nonplussed. Specuutf8g that a wi-fi network could be up and running in 12 to 18 months while the municipal fiber route could take four years to roll out, Vinzon asked, "How many generations of kids do we want to see left out? When I talk to teachers, it’s clear who has a computer and Internet access at home. Those without are not doing as well. So we don’t want to address this in four years. We want to address it now. Doing municipal on the back of those who don’t have access right now is unfortunate."

Acknowledging that for wi-fi access to be truly meaningful, residents will need training and hardware — "If you don’t know how to use or even have a computer, obviously you won’t be able to bridge the digital divide," — Vinzon added that the city will release plans in the next couple of weeks to address digital inclusion concerns.

But with an officially commissioned report on municipal fiber set to thud onto the supervisors’ desks in January 2007, questions clearly remain as to whether the city would be better off rushing into a private partnership to put a wireless and not entirely free cloud over the city or taking its time to explore a system that could prove more reliable and ultimately less expensive in the long run. *