Sasha Magee

Do wi-fi right — ourselves


OPINION Although it’s only a "declaration of policy," Proposition J (the mayor’s wi-fi initiative) is garnering a lot of opposition. Taken at face value, the initiative seems like a no-brainer: of course we should have free, high-speed wi-fi for everyone, with adequate privacy and no public money, right now. The initiative makes it sound like all we have to do is bend over and pick up the golden wi-fi network lying in the street. Like other stories about precious paving, though, the reality is considerably less shiny.

Since Mayor Gavin Newsom filed Prop. J to whip up support for his proposed EarthLink network, that company pulled out of the San Francisco deal. EarthLink also pulled out of its agreement with Houston (paying $5 million in penalties) and laid off almost all of its municipal network division staff.

Prop. J was created to rally support for a deal that doesn’t exist anymore. Should we pass it anyway? Well, the problems that Prop. J points out are real. At least a fifth of San Franciscans have no home Internet access, and many more residents have only dial-up access.

Unfortunately, Prop. J is written to make a political point, not to ensure universal Internet access. In order to make that point, it insists on two features that were part of the EarthLink deal but don’t make sense if we’re actually trying to achieve access for everyone.

First, wi-fi is almost certainly not the technology on which to base a citywide network. It’s suited to quick-and-dirty outdoor networks or to extending indoor networks to multiple rooms, but as a network that’s supposed to cover large outdoor areas and reach into buildings, it’s got serious limitations.

A smarter approach would likely use wi-fi only where it makes the most sense as part of a larger network. A truly universal network would likely utilize a combination of wi-fi, the fiber-optic line that San Francisco already owns, and possibly other technologies, like copper wires or fixed-point wireless.

Second, Prop. J specifies that the network be built as a public-private partnership. The fall of the EarthLink deal proves that the fantasy of a company coming into San Francisco and giving everyone free Internet is just that: a fantasy. Simply declaring that we want a public-private partnership is not going to conjure some unknown company out of thin air to build a universal network in San Francisco.

Although the measure is not legally binding, many of its opponents, including several unions and a number of community groups, understandably fear that it’ll be used as an excuse to rush into a bad deal. If we’ve committed to a public-private partnership and "implementing … agreements as quickly as possible," we’re not exactly staking out a great bargaining position.

The mayor seems dead set on finding a private company to build this network, whether or not that makes sense. He’s likely to use Prop. J, if it passes, as a way to ignore the likelihood that we’re better off pursuing a city-run network. If ensuring that every San Franciscan has access to the Internet is something we really feel is important, it’s something that’s worth doing right, and if we want to make sure it’s done right, we should do it ourselves.

Sasha Magee

Sasha Magee is an activist who blogs at

Will Newsom have a legacy?


Over the past four years Mayor Gavin Newsom has enjoyed high poll ratings, but he has been unable to deliver any signature piece of legislation. His most celebrated actions were symbolic: marrying same-sex couples and walking the picket line with the striking hotel workers.

With only months to go before he is up for reelection, Newsom is hoping free wi-fi will be that signature bill. But unless he quickly changes his tactics, his legislation will go up in flames.

From the moment Newsom announced his wi-fi vision, the supervisors have been asking for input into the deal. At every meeting, the mayor’s representatives have dodged or stalled. The Board of Supervisors asked Newsom’s negotiators not to present it with a take-it-or-leave-it deal; the mayor’s staffers did just that. So it’s no surprise that the board seems hesitant to give the contract the benefit of the doubt. Newsom has responded by lambasting the board as "obstructionist" rather than by working with the supervisors to address their concerns.

Although there are good points to the proposal, there are also problems.

Service will be slow.

There’s no enforceable guarantee the network will cover the parts of the city that need it the most.

The contract is effectively a monopoly, and it’s long. We’re likely to be stuck with this contract for 16 years.

Penetration into apartment buildings and above second floors will be virtually nonexistent without the purchase of expensive extra equipment.

These are all legitimate public policy reasons to question the mayor’s proposal. But instead of working with the supervisors, he trashes them to every group and editorial board that will listen.

The board is exploring another possibility that the mayor should look at instead of his current effort: municipal wi-fi. Although the mayor has rejected that avenue, there are strong public-policy reasons for pursuing such a strategy.

Unfortunately, the people who will suffer the most from the mayor’s refusal to deal with the board are those who need a city network the most: schoolkids who can’t get online to do their homework; unemployed folks looking for a job; non-English speakers seeking city information; and anyone who needs free training or support.

Wi-fi, of course, is only one of the issues on which Newsom has given the board the finger. His repeated veto of foot patrols showed more loyalty to the Police Officers Association than to the needs of residents of high-crime areas. His continued refusal to consider a Saturday road closure trial in Golden Gate Park doesn’t serve anyone other than a few wealthy donors. The voters even went so far as to pass Proposition I, which demanded that Newsom meet with the board. The mayor has responded with highly managed events at which the supervisors cannot appear as a group.

Instead of trying to ram through a flawed wi-fi deal, the real legacy Newsom could create — one that would truly benefit us all — is that of a strong working relationship with the Board of Supervisors. *

Sasha Magee

Sasha Magee is a San Francisco activist who writes at