The wi-fi elephant

Pub date January 23, 2007
WriterSarah Phelan


It’s been widely reported in recent weeks that San Francisco and the Google-EarthLink team have already reached a deal to offer free wireless Internet service citywide. In reality, the deal cut by Mayor Gavin Newsom is tentative and requires the approval of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) and the Board of Supervisors.

And getting that approval looks increasingly unlikely in light of a growing chorus of critics and a scathing assessment of the plan that Board of Supervisors budget analyst Harvey Rose laid out in his Jan. 11 report on the feasibility of a municipally owned wi-fi system.

As Rose notes, even though the city’s technology consultant, Civitium, recommended that officials examine all alternative approaches to bridging the digital divide, the Department of Telecommunications and Information Services (DTIS) negotiated with Google-EarthLink "without conducting a more formal analysis of the feasibility of wireless broadband or a completed study of the feasibility of wired networks."

That study of various options, including a municipal broadband system using fiber, was requested by the Board of Supervisors on Oct. 5, 2004, before Newsom pitched his free wi-fi idea in his State of the City speech two weeks later. The DTIS and the SFPUC staff decided to fast-track Newsom’s plan; the fiber study began in June 2006 and is expected from Columbia Telecommunications Corp. (CTC) any day now.

Rose’s report questions why the city wasn’t studying all its options before going with the Google-EarthLink wi-fi system, which the mayor is pushing. Supervisors have now announced plans to study various digital options in board committee meetings and at the Local Agency Formation Commission before making any decisions.

All of this doesn’t bode well for Newsom because, according to Rose, the Google-EarthLink deal gives the two telecommunications giants potentially unfair business advantages, delivers San Francisco a technically flawed system, and leaves gaping holes in Newsom’s much-ballyhooed attempt to bridge the digital divide.

Rose’s not-so-rosy report reveals that EarthLink’s wireless network limits potential competition in the unlicensed radio frequency band, giving the company a quasi-exclusive franchise, "as any competitors would have to contend with EarthLink’s existing wireless signals."

The deal also gives EarthLink the appearance of a conflict of interest, because the company serves as wholesale network provider and one of the available Internet service providers.

The report warns that the plan’s sale and usage of user data for private purposes "exposes those utilizing the EarthLink wireless network to the wide dissemination of their personal data, even if such users opt out of the receipt of marketing materials." Rose also notes that Google gets exclusive access to users of EarthLink’s basic service — a setup that gives the telecommunications giant free access to millions of points of data, all in return for a free but slow service.

Perhaps most damning for Newsom, given the mayor’s repeated claims that the deal is all about helping the underserved, is Rose’s observation that the basic free service provided by EarthLink will be slower than existing DSL and cable Internet technology.

Rose writes, "To receive service roughly comparable to existing technology and similar networks being implemented in other cities, network users would have to pay an estimated monthly fee of $21.95, while 3,200 network users who qualify under a proposed ‘Digital Inclusion Product’ would pay a monthly fee of $12.95."

In the face of all these drawbacks, Rose recommends the board tell the city to reissue a request for proposals to allow for consideration of publicly owned, public-private, and privately owned systems — the three wireless models Rose contrasts in his 42-page report. While Rose concludes that it may be fiscally feasible to build municipally owned wi-fi, he notes the city would likely face competition from private interests and risk network obsolescence within a few years.

Rose suggests future proposals should provide wi-fi access for low-income residents that is "high-quality and free," including "state-of-the art connectivity that is at least equal in technological capability to nearby offerings," and "try to leverage existing public and private infrastructures." He also recommends such proposals include, to the extent practicable, the city’s existing fiber infrastructure — and incorporate results of Civitium’s and the CTC’s studies.

"Google-EarthLink only seems to be there to sell the advertising and collect the fees," Sup. Jake McGoldrick told the Guardian, as he vented frustration over how the Mayor’s Office and the DTIS focused exclusively on the Google-EarthLink deal.

"Every time they were asked for information that would advance other options, they stonewalled," McGoldrick said.

DTIS chief administrator Ron Vinson told the Guardian he hasn’t seen the fiber study, which was expected at the start of the year. "It’s not out yet. We haven’t seen it," Vinson said Jan. 19, the day after Newsom told the Chronicle that the wi-fi deal was too important to be killed off by politics.

But as wi-fi activist Bruce Wolfe told the Guardian, "It’s the mayor’s introduction of an insufficient plan that’s causing the situation to become political, when really it’s a technical question."

Fiber is a more reliable and faster technology than wi-fi, and it serves as a better backhaul to a wi-fi system than the phone lines that Google-EarthLink plans to use. Wolfe said the deal is "like buying diesel buses when everyone’s converting to hybrids."

He said San Francisco’s hilly, foggy, and built-out terrain means residents will get spotty wi-fi at best and no wi-fi at worst, particularly if they’re not within sight of a wi-fi node or on the third floor of a high-rise. Wolfe recommends that the city combine its preexisting fiber backbone and short-term contracts with groups of wi-fi providers to create a series of neighborhood access points, all managed by a nonprofit agency with technological expertise.

"If Google owned the city and needed to provide access to us, it wouldn’t go for a wi-fi-only solution," Wolfe said. "This is no time to be building a white elephant." *