9 Comments

Summary:

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 […]

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.

  1. First SF Community Wi-Fi Meeting Notes…

    As useful as blogs are for two-way communication, there’s still something qualitatively different about face-to-face discussions. I’ve found this when I meet people at conferences who I’ve only known through their blogs, when I meet some of the blo…

    Share
  2. Katie – How about interviewing some obviously knowledgble community activists for your story (btw don’t forget the city is also doing a Fiber study due in Dec as well as the city owned wifi study).

    I think there were few people in the room because there isn’t a great need for this service – you can’t throw a stick without hitting a free wifi cafe already. And most everyone acknowledges now that getting the signal to work indoors is an unreliable proposition with current technology – so people aren’t going to be cancelling their DSL. (If the phone/cable companies thought they would be – they would be protesting this).
    City-wide Wifi is an add-on. – For real world example look at no major changes in Tempe AZ.

    Chris Sacca of Google says that Google wants to promote alternative options for internet access yet when repeatedly asked if Google would direct their funds to a City-Owned wifi solution or one that uses City-Owned fiber and wifi add-on (like what Mesa Az or Seattle are looking at) we got a long answer about how complex these solutions are: indicating that only corporations would have such expertise (apparently he hasn’t used the city’s water, library or fire departments – or even the police which all use various wireless networks). Why couldn’t Google build it for the city – they already did for Mountain View?

    Minne Ingersol of Google claims they have been transparently pursuing this WiFi from the begining, yet- Google submitted a 100 page response to the RFI with 90 of the pages blacked out from the public. And only now – over a year later do we have the first meeting from Google/Earthlink on the matter – this meeting was a sales presentation – not a community input session. Google and Earthlink could have shown up at the 6+ public hearings the city has had on Muni Wifi so far – other vendors have – but they have not.

    The RFP process while claimed to be transparent never produced the individual detailed scoring of the proposals (only agreggate) and never produced answers or any materials related to the Oral interview portion of the RFP.

    John Gillmore of EFF fame asked Chris why the free Google network requires any form of log-on and why certain ports like Port 25 (mail relay) are blocked. Think about it: SFLAN doesn’t require log-on or perform “walled garden” port blocking and in fact, most free wifi cafes also don’t require login. Chris acknowledged the restrictions and claimed they were due to “architecture” and when asked to change the architecture he responded abruptly “noted”

    When I asked Chris – isn’t Google funding a lightpole monopoly that Earthlink will control (remember Earthlink has been fighting hard to get a pipe they can control) he disagreed and claimed another vendor could rollout Wimax (I don’t believe Wimax is acceptable for laptop usage) nonetheless – Earthlink will still control all the favorable lightpoles/building tops – especially when they rollout the next iteration of a Wifi network that does a better job of indoor coverage. Think about it – would the city let a Cell phone provider have a monoply franchise – no. We all know how bad the Comcast and ATT have treated the city with their Cable and Phone monopolies.

    When Google and Earthlink were asked why they wouldn’t build a proof of concept BEFORE the contract was signed (like the vendor shootouts at other cities – for example the recent one that Earthlink lost) they had no answer.

    When asked if the network tracks the location of people using it – they both gave long squirly answers – I would take that as a Yes.

    Also Earthlink somewhat obscured that their privacy policy is different than Google’s on this initiative and both have now put in an opt-out clause in the draft contract that allows them to renegotiate privacy policies with the city after the contract is signed (Eff has gone on record saying that privacy policies should be in the contract not changeable Terms Of Service).

    If Amazon came to San Francisco and offered to outsource running of the public libraries and partially fund it by using the private checkout records in somevway to generate sales leads or advertising – there would be a huge uproar – this is in many ways is what may happen here – the city will offer the private surfing habits of their citizens in exchange for a crappy indoor wifi lightpole monoply. (remember when the auto companies conspired to kill public transportation to promote car sales?) Ownership of the network matters and that is why you see the Utopia project in Utah and fiber solutions and hybrid fiber/wifi solutions with community ownership being examined around the world.

    Share
  3. People will soon figure out that muni Wi-Fi is a de facto franchise as it is impossible for more than one Wi-Fi network to exist once the pole rights are controlled. The fact that the company with the pole rights may be forced to wholesale their network doesn’t change anything.

    What I find interesting is how easy it is for a company to put a stop to any city’s Wi-Fi plans by simply doing a small deployment. If Comcast for example put up enough Wi-Fi APs to stop the winning bidder from deploying the required coverage area what would happen? Those strand mounted DOCSIS Wi-Fi APs seem to be just the ticket.

    Share
  4. Kimo hits on all the important issues – the lack of transparency, the danger of hastily committing the city to a contract for citywide service regardless of citywide need, and the real risk involved in signing a contract without a pilot project.

    But the Reporter zeros in on an important issue – the different motivating factors in the EarthLink/Google partnership. Google’s in it for the research, EarthLink for the money.

    EarthLink’s claim that the City has better things to spend its money on is diversionary. There’s money to be made here. If there weren’t, EarthLink wouldn’t be doing it.

    The Wall Street Journal reported in April that most citywide wireless networks could break even at a subscription rate of around $7 per customer per month, compared to the $20 per month EarthLink plans to charge. EarthLink CEO Gary Betty’s response? “We’re not in business to break even. We’re in the business of making money for our shareholders.”

    This isn’t a typical municipal capital project like roads an bridges – it’s an investment with a revenue stream to repay the bonds.

    The City may not have the expertise to set up the network, but it can contract for a turn key network as other cities have done. EarthLink didn’t have any experience with citywide wireless when it got in the business, and it still hasn’t demonstrated it can do the job. Only a fraction of the Anaheim and Philadelphia networks are in place, and the New Orleans network it now operates was built as a city-owned network.

    Google has been painted as the devil here for wanting to offer free access, as they have reportedly done successfully in Mountain View. People realize that they aren’t getting something for nothing from Google, though, and they’re justifiably worried about the privacy implications.

    San Franciscans are starting to realize they can’t get something for nothing from EarthLink either. The city’s study of publicly owned wirleess should make that clear, as should the fiber study.

    There are many things the City could do in relatively short order to address the digital divide. The wireless Internet access at the Alice Griffith housing project is a good example, and wireless could be put up in parks and squares for a tiny fraction of what it will cost to cover every square inch of the city, regardless of need or demand.

    Share
  5. Can’t see the point of a YAWN (yet another wifi network) in cities as wired as San Francisco if its a “public service” play. Its people in smaller towns and less wired cities that need this sort of technology in the main.

    I suspect wifi’ng San Fran is more than just a commercial ploy for Google, the clicksteam analytics (especially with location data) alone is worth a lot. However, what Google does not have today is the gold plated customer identity that a Telco does…billable, bank accounted customer IDs…and this will surely be designed as a way to get more of that data. And of course it will seamlessly map onto all those Google data services.

    Public service…yeah, yeah :)

    Share
  6. damn…I meant unless its a public service play. It may have to be private in smaller cities.

    Share
  7. Remarks on the article…

    […]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.

    How much fiber can be laid in one and a half years?

    I expect that much fiber can be laid out along most streets in long unbroken lines, if we remember the dendrite screensavers then we know we reach a lotta lotta places in three or four steps. Completing each step takes more time, but whole neighborhoods could be online before the wifi gets rolled out.

    Mayor Newsom could ‘cut the ribbon’ on a fiber link that wires up Hunter’s Point.
    He could keep that part of the promise of the wifi proposal before any of the wifi gets off the ground.

    Wifi is a toy. It should be left to be a toy. Half the people in denser areas won’t get coverage. Unlicensed frequencies weren’t intended for this purpose and it will show immediately. WiMax is licensed frequency and would be better, but Japan already has an essentially 4G system. We could just use that. Why build a mass public network out of tinkertoys that break?

    Will the wifi network allow any consumer to also be a producer? No, but the fiber network will. Will the wifi network allow the user to participate with precisely only who the user wishes to participate with? No. It will be a commercially-run network, using advertising to subsidize itself, and the user must move past that commercial entity before engaging the world. The fiber network will allow the user to connect specifically and directly to whichever access or content provider they choose, and as many as they choose simultaneously in full-bore streaming video, with different channels in many different rooms, and providing for simultaneous dozens of flawless VOIP calls, all of which wifi suffers to dream of.

    Fiber doesn’t require hundreds of low-power microwave units to be distributed throughout the city, as wifi does. I’m reckless; I don’t mind being forever bathed in low-level microwave radiation, but some people mind. With fiber it’s no problem, the stuff emits no radiation.

    Finally, fiber first and put up little wifi hotzones as desired, fed off the fiber.

    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) it’s a small minority.

    I shed no tears for either company. No or little demonstrated competence in doing this stuff, neither wireless nor ISP anything to do with the pretty lead, Google. Since the only active partner, Earthlink, is only doing what SF could do for itself,
    it’s odd to wish to deal with for-profit enterprises to accomplish a task that could be done more cheaply by the city on its own. The city seems enamored of the ability to use the word “free” in relation to the service, the notion being that even the
    broke can get on the internet. But with what? G/E aren’t swift to provide computers for the broke to use, as I hear. The Mayor can hook up lots of broke people in a hurry without lifting the phone for an RFP and the UN has $100 PCs that SF could dole out, out of a fund.

    There is no “free”. Some will get free (slow) service, many will be scraped for data and sold to marketing companies. Nothing “free” about that.

    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.

    I suggest our economic system has collapsed in the sense that we have few alternatives to price-gouging ever-merging monopolies. The choice between telco and cableco is not a choice if they both suck. I suggest perhaps the people are sick enough, if they think about it, to want to see if they can’t get something really good to happen from their own efforts. The reasons to oppose a city wifi network are the same but
    fewer as for the commercial wifi network, primary among them being that a dollar spent on fiber is a much better dollar spent than on wifi. Waste not, want not. The fiber initiative shall proceed, so continuing to work the wifi horse is not an efficient use of anyone’s money. We promise not to say “we told you so” if the city quietly deep-sixes the wifi thing; but if it proceeds, they will never hear the end of it. Can we please just drop it now and redouble the intent on fiber? Stop a fiasco, frisco.

    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.

    Were their answers adequate?

    […]The query what is Google getting out of this? and nothing is free, was a common
    question by the audience. […]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.

    I suggest they rethink that in terms of a distributed fiber/mobile network and get out of our network’s guts. And nothing /was/ free.

    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.

    The sale of an entire city as a clientbase. How sad. That must be worth a lot of computers for broke people.

    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. Its 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). Well 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.

    Remember the dendrites. Let’s look forward to fiber arteries spreading across town by mid 2007 – and with each passing mile along each major thoroughfare, branch off down each side street, and hook up the neighbors. With the political will, it’s that easy.

    -ecsd
    Wireless ISP in Berkeley
    If interested in fiber (wherever), please contribute material to communityfiber.org.

    Share
  8. I forgot to brag: we would expect fiber to enter your premises at say, 1 gigabit per second or 10 gigabits per second, whatever’s fastest cheapest when we build it out en masse. Even ‘only’ 1gbps is enough to suit your needs for a long, long time. The installation is permanent and passive, and essentially maintenance-free.

    And it’s a big step toward kicking monopolies out of your life. That’s the high voltage treat.

    -ecsd

    (wifi: the free service was what, 300kbps and the high-end service like 2mbps? just to rub it in.)

    Share
  9. I agree with Kimo’s points against the companies. I take it for granted, though. The moment this project was put up for open bid by commercial entities, it was garbage. We don’t want or need a for-profit entity involved in the thing. The notion that “the city doesn’t have the expertise and only we (corpco) do” is absurd; people in SF Bay Area who would /volunteer/ time to help SF will be as smart as any group from Goog or Elnk, besides which the stuff is sold at costco and is not rocket science to start with.

    The monopoly part is the worst; with that in mind, if we watch how much handwaving these guys do in answer to serious questions, what we understand is they think it’s all a formality and the thing itself is slam dunk that they will get it, and then do as they choose. All the back and forth about: well, how Much are you spying on us, can you just stop? No? … and having to spend one millisecond worrying about “partner’s need to make a profit”. Pfui. That’s why when you hear the word “FREE” you should shout “BULL”!! Like Gavin could snap his fingers and the Google fairy would wave the wand and then all the underserved people would dance in the streets. That’s his pillowtime image, having nothing to do with reality. Sure, we’ll do your ($millions) wifi network for FREE because we are so – DISINTERESTED IN RECOVERING EXPENSES. Gavin wants the network for nothing; too afraid to tell the people it would cost them money. But going to the corporations for it ends up costing much more.

    Nobody will put a wimax network inside SF if this cheesy putzy network is there. We were going to bring 20mbps to Treasure Island, but when we saw them abandon us the moment they heard they could get Sprint (which stopped selling circuits within 8 months) and when we saw they wanted to jack the ISP by wifi-mass sharing of a single connection, we gave up. They were lured by the quick easy and pulled the rug of incentive out from under us, what would have been a better service (4mbps+ versus 1.5mbps and a service-friendly ISP versus one that serves only pure consumers.) That is a corpco strategy: divide (the consumer into a single consuming unit) and conquer. Each one only for themself. And make them believe the only thing that matters is the price; and finally, make them believe that “free” means only not spending money (but not time: how much attention span to be ripped off for them to try to sell you something.) If Commercial Messages are present, then whatever it is, it’s not FREE. If they gather data about your habits, they’re ripping you off; that’s not free.

    So the mere fact of for-profit-corporate involvement in the SF wifi thing poisons it. If fiber were not possible, then if wifi is done, the CITY should do it for itself, and there would be no discussions, pressure, threats or lawsuits concerning how much corpco gets to suck our blood. So, two bad things we have to kill: wifi versus fiber, and corporate wifi versus community wifi.

    -ecsd
    ISP in Oakland/Berkeley
    http://communityfiber.org

    Share

Comments have been disabled for this post