A vote on public broadband

Pub date August 22, 2007
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL It’s annoying that San Francisco progressives and good-government voters will have to spend time and money this fall trying to defeat Mayor Gavin Newsom’s phony wi-fi initiative. It won’t be easy, either: the mayor is, in the words of one blogger, Sasha Magee, promising free ice cream. He’s telling San Franciscans that they can have wireless Internet access everywhere in town without paying a dime. Hard to get people to turn down that deal.

But the mayor isn’t telling the truth — and when this battle is over, the progressives need to offer a much better alternative.

For many people, the promise of Internet access in the mayor’s plan will prove to be entirely false. The wi-fi deal that Newsom has put together will probably work fine for people checking their e-mail on laptops from park benches downtown and outdoor tables at sidewalk cafés. But people who live or work deep inside buildings, far from windows and walls, won’t get any signal at all. And anyone who lives or works more than two stories up won’t get a signal either.

And of course, the free signal, when it works, won’t be fast enough to do much but (slowly) check your e-mail, if there are no attachments to download. You want real broadband, you’re going to have to pay a monthly fee.

That, as we have reported over and over, is because this is a private-sector deal: the network (if it’s actually built) will be owned by EarthLink and Google, and the two companies will be trying to make money off it. They’ll do that by selling premium service (that is, service at a rate most people would consider tolerable) and by targeting everyone on the network with ads.

Although the ballot measure is vague and legally meaningless, it will be the vote of confidence Newsom can use to push the Board of Supervisors to approve his EarthLink-Google deal — that is, unless, as has been widely suggested in the business media, EarthLink shifts direction and decides not to pursue any more municipal wi-fi deals and the city is left holding the bag. So advocates of a true universal broadband alternative need to start working now to present another, better option.

And the best way to do that is to begin drafting a comprehensive citywide broadband initiative for the June 2008 ballot.

Broadband access is and ought to be part of the city’s basic civil infrastructure — something that, like water (and, someday, electricity), is offered through a publicly owned and controlled system at the lowest possible rates. Low-cost broadband would be an immense advantage to local businesses and a huge convenience for local residents and (unlike Newsom’s joke of a deal) would actually do something to address the digital divide.

Wi-fi would be a part of the package, of course, but the plan should also include a citywide fiber-optic network that would bring reliable, fast, and technologically up-to-date Internet access to every address in the city. And while it would cost the city some money up front to build it, the system would almost certainly pay for itself in just a few years. And it could be paired with the construction of a citywide public power system.

Next June may not be a high-turnout election statewide, but in San Francisco, Democrats will be out in force with one of the most contested primaries in local history, pitting Assemblymember Mark Leno against Sen. Carole Migden for the Third District senate seat. Both candidates will be pushing voter turnout — and both can be pressured to support publicly owned municipal wi-fi as a campaign issue (and to back the growing antiprivatization agenda in San Francisco).

Defeating the mayor’s plan is just step one — and the time to start with step two is today.<\!s>*