SF WiFi: Google, Earthlink’s Local Meetup

Google and Earthlink held their first community meeting to talk about their plans to unwire San Francisco last night, and we stopped by the powwow held in an outer Mission area church basement. Unlike Google’s WiFi meetings in Mountain View, which attracted hundreds of interested local residents, only around 30 people actually showed up to the inaugural SF WiFi event, and most were Earthlink and Google executives, journalists, and a few community advocates. Other than a couple interested locals, few in the room seemed like members of the neighboring community.

Maybe the attendance was low because the SF WiFi network still seems like a distant idea. The plans have entered the haze of city politics, and Earthlink and Google have not signed any contract with the city yet. Their plan still needs to pass the approval of the Board of Supervisors. After (and if) a contract is signed, Earthlink will build a two-square mile test bed in a yet-to-be-determined area of San Francisco, which alone could take six months. Then the network would take another year to build after that. Earthlink exec Cole Reinwand said they wouldn’t be close to launching a network for at least another 18 months.

And that’s assuming that the city doesn’t decide to create some kind of public-ownership model, which it agreed to look into last week, and which could derail any progress that Earthlink and Google have made so far. It’s unclear what path the duo would take if the city takes the public route, but likely that decision could put a network off for an additional year given the RFP process would have to start all over. We’re not sure how seriously the city is considering that option, but Earthlink and Google execs thought (and are likely hoping) its a small minority.

Earthlink’s Reinwand said he doubted a city-owned network would include long term plans for an upgrade of the network, and audience members agreed that the city had many other things it could be spending millions of dollars on. In reality, while a publicly-run San Francisco WiFi network is an interesting consideration and has gotten a lot of attention, it would probably have even more opponents than the network proposed by Google and Earthlink. As our readers have commented, city bureacracy is slow and city funds are stretched thin.

Even if the meeting — which is the first of 11 planned for San Francisco over the next few months — was under attended, we applaud Google and Earthlink for their transparent and touchy-feely ways. Those in attendance brought up issues like privacy, security, the digital divide, and how the technology works. The executives did their best to answer them.

Though perhaps the most interesting thing was to see the differences between Earthlink and Google while they are working together on this network. The query “what is Google getting out of this?” and “nothing is free,” was a common question by the audience. Google executives have insisted that the SF WiFi network is mostly a public good. We’re giving back to the community, they said. But Earthlink’s Reinwand says that Google’s SF WiFi plans are as much business-based, as do-gooder, pointing to the lucrative possibilties of location-based services. It seemed like just the idea of Google doing charity work with muni WiFi really hurt Earthlink’s sensibitlities. We all know what Earthlink is hoping to get from muni WiFi: make enough money and bring in enough users to help turn around its dying dial-up business.

Earthlink could end up losing a lot if the business case for large scale muni WiFi networks doesn’t pan out. Google on the other hand loses little — for them it’s just an experiment, not a long term business strategy. I asked Reinward how it was to work with Google on this plan, and he said “spirited, challenging, thought-provoking.” It’s not surprising that the two companies might clash sometimes over the SF WiFi network, given their intentions are as far apart as Atlanta (Earthlink’s HQ) and Mountain View (Google’s HQ). We’ll see how the two work together to address the inevitable speed bumps San Francisco will throw at them. But we still wish we didn’t have to wait so long to test it out.

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