Selling wi-fi

Pub date May 22, 2007
WriterSarah Phelan


Just before a Board of Supervisors committee finally considered Mayor Gavin Newsom’s controversial free wireless Internet plan May 14, supporters of the mayor staged a rally on the steps of City Hall. The event featured African American ministers, Latino students, and Chinese senior citizens demanding that the city hurry up and bridge the digital divide by approving Newsom’s deal with Google and EarthLink.

"Wi-fi for All" was part of an aggressive push for the plan by Newsom’s reelection campaign team — which organized the rally and a letter-writing campaign aimed at supervisors — yet one that has been denounced as a race-baiting fraud by critics who have long argued that the deal does little to put connected computers in the hands of poor folks and that it’s a better deal for the corporate partners than it is for city residents.

"Chinatown is at the bottom of the line," Self Help for Seniors president Annie Chung announced as busloads of seniors stood up and silently waved their "Wi-fi for All" signs on cue.

"Forty percent of the Latino community do not own or have access to a computer," city resident Ricardo Alva added, while Rev. Arnold Townsend thundered, "Everybody who is opposed to this is going home and online."

Yet Newsom’s contract effectively creates a world of first- and second-class cybercitizens. Those who can afford to pay $22 a month can sign up for EarthLink’s premium service, which gives them a competitive and fast connection speed of 1,000 kilobits per second, plus free relay equipment (such as an antenna if they have reception problems). But those who can’t afford to pay get an account that lets Google do free market research in exchange for slow-speed (300 kbps) service that does not cover the $50 to $200 cost of equipment they might need to receive a connection indoors.

A new study by the Office of the Controller finds that 82 percent of city residents use a computer at home and 80 percent of those use it to access the Internet. So the service is aimed primarily at the 20 percent of folks who have a computer but no Internet access, those who might want to drop their existing service, or those who want to Web-surf in parks and other public spaces. The controller’s City Survey 2007 also notes that while more than 80 percent of the north, central, and west regions are connecting to the Internet at home, only 70 percent of the southeastern neighborhoods do so.

"Between 1998 and 2007, Southeast residents bought home PCs at a slower pace," the survey states, observing that whites are "2.1 times more likely to have Internet access than African Americans." Of non–college graduates, "those over 60 years and particularly Latinos, those without access are even less likely now to get online."

So there’s a certain logic to the mayor’s use of the race card, at least until the public scrutinizes whether universality of access, speed, service, equipment, support, and training are guaranteed under his deal. But Newsom has been unwilling to discuss the proposal with the Board of Supervisors or entertain modifying the deal since he emerged from a Google-chartered Bombardier corporate jet with visions of free wi-fi dancing in his head following an economic summit in Davos, Switzerland.

But supervisors have pushed the city’s Department of Telecommunications and Information Services (DTIS) to investigate the feasibility of city-owned wi-fi and high-speed fiber optics. Those reports, finally made available this spring, confirmed what wi-fi experts had been saying all along: municipal wi-fi is feasible, and fiber is a necessary backbone and complementary service in a city whose famed fog and hills make wireless Internet access a spotty proposition at best and a nonexistent one at worst.

Tim Pozar, CEO of United Layer, which installed free Internet at the Alice Griffith housing project, told us, "The extreme difficulty of reaching users inside of buildings makes the Google-EarthLink wi-fi strategy the worst possible model for bringing Internet to low-income communities which don’t have it yet."

Eric Brooks, a member of PublicNet San Francisco, a newly formed coalition of community groups and Internet professionals, dismisses as "ludicrous" the notion that people will cancel cable and DSL to sign up for EarthLink’s premium service, which the controller’s report said would save city residents $9 million to $18 million annually.

"I have dial-up, and I’m on the third floor of my building, so I’m not gonna cancel my dial-up, because the wi-fi won’t be reliable," Brooks says. And Ralf Muehlen, director of SFLan, a nonprofit that already provides free wi-fi Internet access to hundreds of San Franciscans, wonders who is going to want to pay EarthLink $22 a month "when AT&T sells a 50 percent faster service for $20."

Asked about these concerns, Emy Tseng, project director of the city’s Digital Inclusion program, acknowledges that wi-fi is like cell phones and broadcast TV when it comes to spotty, unreliable reception.

"You might get a stronger signal if your window is facing a light pole or if you have a wireless router, like an antenna or rabbit ears," says Tseng, who is currently talking to manufacturers about getting discounts on computers and relay equipment in an effort to reach an estimated 150,000 underserved residents.

According to the Newsom-negotiated contract, EarthLink will pay the city 5 percent of gross revenues from its subscription services, and these funds will allow the city to try to bridge the gaps in the city’s ever-widening digital divide. Brian Roberts of the DTIS says the city anticipates receiving a minimum of $75,000 in digital inclusion funds per quarter if all goes well and at least $200,000 if the deal breaks down.

"Cost is becoming less of a factor as computer equipment prices fall," says Tseng, who is trying to build community-based support programs within neighborhoods. She believes the two-square-mile pilot project required of EarthLink to prove that its network is feasible will be built in underserved neighborhoods, not downtown, as some critics have feared.

Yet the American Civil Liberties Union warns that Newsom’s deal raises unresolved security and privacy concerns. Blogger Sasha Magee of gives Newsom credit for having opened up a serious discussion about digital inclusion and the government’s role in trying to ensure that everyone has access to the opportunities the Internet represents: "To his credit, the contributions of activists and service providers around digital inclusion programs have been listened to," Magee wrote. "What has not been listened to, however, is the input on what the network should be." *