SF WiFi in Limbo?


Google and Earthlink are struggling to sell their San Francisco WiFi plan to residents and community activists. The duo held a community meeting on Tuesday, which Davis Freeberg says was populated by a circus of crazed gadflies — another meeting is planned for tonight. I attended the first meeting, and an Earthlink exec said the network would take at least 18 months to launch — obviously not meeting the end of the year timeline that some had hoped for, which isn’t too surprising to our readers.

Freeberg points out the difficulties of San Francisco politics, and makes a lot of good points, but it’s hard to be that sympathetic to Earthlink and Google — two for-profit companies that will likely make significant money off of the network if it ever gets launched. Earthlink has been facing city politics in all of its bids, and Google has experience with Mountain View residents. It’s the basic business of municipal WiFi to deal with confused, ignorant, and demanding residents. Some cities just have more than others.


RF Nerd

I am shocked at the expectation of free service, fiber, wireless or otherwise that many of my fellow San Franciscans seem to have.

The bottom line is that someone has to pay for city services. There is no such thing as free. Even if the service is offered at no cost, then our tax dollars must pay. Are you prepared to support a bond to build a broadband network? I doubt it.

The enormous wealth in our company is driven by capitalism. That anyone could even entertain thoughts of such large scale entitlement is sign of tremendous privelege.

I work in the wireless business, and I know how risky the muni wifi business models are. Most insiders seriously question whether any of the service providers can even generate profits.

If they do, the profits will be a well deserved reward for taking such a huge risk. We pay for other wireless and internet services. Why is WiFi different? All those seeking handouts should be grateful to have an alternative. And if the service providers get stinking rich, you should applaud them for driving the innovation and technology development that contributes to the wealth of our nation.


Kimo, you or I should bug CTC to get maps of rights-of-way that CTC has assembled. We’d like to see where wiring stuff up will be easier and where not.


The fiber study is due from CTC within two months. They (supes/techconnect) should be able to wait that long.

Kimo Crossman

Brilliant response ecsd!

you’re right, people here free and they stop thinking.

We all know Fiber is the way to go, That’s why Seattle is now doing their Fiber First proposal.

Let’s hope San Francisco will wait for the Fiber study to make a decision on these issues.


“Free wi-fi for all San Franciscans is a good thing.” – Thomas Hawk

I’m sorry to rain on anyone’s parade, but Google, Earthlink and Gavin Newsom hope people hear “free” and quit thinking. Nothing is free. Someone will pay. Listen to comments about “how much profit will be made”, put two and two together, and figure the profit comes from somewhere – from people paying. Open-air TV is “free” if you don’t count having your program interrupted every 6 minutes in order for several stupid ad agencies trying to fill your mind with trash about buying something. So we just have to find how the extraction of money is displaced from some people to others – a large-scale shell game – and the consumers of “free” don’t see how that actually impoverishes their life, so they still use the word “free”.

People ought to ask what they can get – how good it will be, what it will cost, and when they can get it. If they looked at what fiber can do and what it would cost, and thought about having it at home – then we all would wonder what is wrong with (us – ourselves) if we aren’t demanding FIBER NOW. What would be more important – getting a 1mbps “free wifi connection” at the zoo, or getting a low-cost (gasp – it will cost something! Ah terror!! But we can still GIVE IT AWAY TO THE NEEDY) 1000mbps fiber connection at your HOUSE and EVERY HOUSE?

In the nearly the same timeframe as getting “free dismally slow wifi with data-scraped consumers” with no chance for a better wifi system in 10-15 years.

We should want the better system. Tell SF to SHELVE the wifi proposal until there is a FIBER INFRASTRUCTURE to support /A/ wifi project – that hooks up the few people such a system would then need to.

p.s. I don’t want to see any for-profit corporation or nonprofit associated with a for-profit corporation doing anything for the citizens that the citizens could do as well for themselves more cheaply. That definitely applies to wifi but also to fiber. People who love the concept of “free” – ”who can agrue with free? Free’s great!” – will end up being the fodder for the politicians to compromise away the better alternatives.

Wake up and smell the FIBER, folks.


Kimo Crossman

Kimo Crossman Says:
October 22nd, 2006 at 12:50 am

I was at the meeting that Davis writes about and had a much different take.

Give me a break. Politics are messy – this is how issues are brought up, not by backroom deals done by lawyers.

Muni Wifi is all about real estate – about essentially exclusive access to favorable lightpoles and city buildings (24×7 power with no trees and blocking structures). If Earthlink gets these – it’s pretty unlikely that another provider will be able to come into the city afterwards with the slim pickings. Earthlink has been desperate to control the pipe and here in San Francisco Google is helping them get that monopoly control.

San Francisco has 4-5 Cell phone providers who compete viciously but will have only 1 WiFi Franchise. When the next WiFi tech comes out that actually works decently this franchise will be just like your Cable or phone company jacking the city around because they own the network.

While there were two audience members that where on the outer fringes and somewhat technically uninformed, that really was the supposed purpose of these Sales (oh, um Community) meetings right? If you exclude their concerns – which should still be answered – the discussion on both sides was not at all as you characterize it. And I would summarize thier issues as: the poor get screwed and there is no such thing as a free lunch. You can’t blame them for being fearful.

Did you mention speakers from the Techconnect Taskforce asking for digital inclusion funding? What about the question from the audience about undergrounding of utilities – how that might effect Muni WiFi already offered in an area? How about the question: I can use a wifi connection in a cafe without signing in – then why do i have to sign-in to the projected free google network? How about Why is Google giving Mountain View 1000k Free and San Francisco only 300k Free? Or how will people get tech support for the google free wifi network when the only support offered is online? Or what recourse will a citzen have who lives in an apartment with a desktop have if the can’t get the wifi? Let’s call Muni Wifi for what it is with current tech: spotty indoor coverage – best effort at most. So the city issues a 12 year lightpole franchise to earthlink/google for unreliable wireless internet.

Its strange that Google is running these meetings when Earthlink is negotiating the contract with the city – what’s going on here?

Why doesn’t Google take the money they would put into this initiative and give it to San Francisco for a Hybrid Fiber/WiFi solution like Seattle’s Fiber First initiative? That would be really innovative. Berekely is looking at Fiber, Palo Alto is looking at Fiber, etc the list is growing daily.

The reason SF is so messed up is because there was no Needs Analysis or Community buy-in before the bids began – Philly took at least 6 months doing this before they issued their RFP and then they made the top respondents implement 1 mile sq test plots.

Essentially Mayor Newsom and the Google founders cooked up this deal and has been trying to force it onto the city from the beginning. For example Google’s Request for Information response had 90 of it’s 100 pages fully redacted/blacked out – and while their have been at least 6 public hearings on the Muni Wifi initiative at city hall – neither Google nor Earthlink have participated at any of them while other vendors have.

San Francisco is already one of the most unwired cities in the nation – you can’t throw a rock without hitting a free wifi cafe. It also has the one of the most favorable demographics and densities for wireless as an ADD-ON – San Francisco should wait for both the Fiber and City-Owned WiFi studies due in December before discussing a Earthlink/Google Franchise agreement.

Jackson West

I’ve been following this story pretty closely, and have had discussions with any number of people on both sides of the debate here. While as a geek, of course I would love to see some sort of WiFi blanket cloak The City, there are a number of troublesome aspects to this plan.

First of all, while the process looked competitive on the surface, a number of sources both within and without City Hall that I spoke to off-the-record expressed concern that it was, in fact, much more (or less, as the case may be) complicated than that — backroom handshake deals being a hallmark of local politics.

Google and Earthlink were awarded the deal even though their proposal met very few of the requirements as set forth in the inital RFP. In fact, while Freeberg bemoans the restrictions of the franchise-agreement enforced monopoly that Comcast enjoys, the contract as it stands would basically set up a very similar arrangement for Google and Earthlink.

Secondly, in the deal, San Francisco failed to get many of the same incentives that Philadelphia received in their deal with Earthlink to provide funding and services to make the local digital community more inclusive. And San Francisco is a much more diverse community that Philadelphia, with a much larger population of non-English speakers, the homeless, and others on the wrong side of the digital divide with special needs.

How this deal will help any of them is beyond me, as owners of inexpensive home desktop machines will need a $100 booster antenna to receive coverage in the home. And that’s if the rollout even gets to their neighborhood (because it would be wishful thinking to believe that the 90% coverage of the entire city, as required by the RFP, will happen all at once).

In my opinion, the real problem here is that the Mayor’s office was more than happy to hold press conferences where they made splashy promises they knew that they couldn’t keep, likely betting that their political opponents at the Board of Supervisors would be labeled ‘obstructionists’ when substantive argument over the merits of the plan and the contract were voiced.

On a personal note, I’m finding it amusing to see wealthy techies who are normally happy to be apathetic about local government suddenly descending with claws drawn on City Hall when woken from a geek wet dream by a splash of political reality. San Franciscans deserve better than having corporations like Google being given a free hand to experiment with, and profit from, their communications infrastructure.

PG Bogdweller

Since when do muni WiFi providers “make significant money”?

Steve Poley

Consumers don’t switch on impulse. ISP/s know most conversions happen on change-of-residence or contract-renewal. Otherwise, it takes a powerful incentive to switch. Adding a second paid ISP service is pretty geeky. Maybe a-really-good wireless service is worth a second ISP bill but I doubt most will engage. Even the cell-carriers have difficulty upselling data services. Google/Earthlink need to treat wireless as engagement marketing leading to their main services. From one who has operated a wireless ISP and now lives another life.

Thomas Hawk

Personally I could care less if Google and Earthlink profit from offering free wi-fi. A competitive process took place narrowing potential providers down to 7 and they were selected. In fact, as they are making significant capital expenditures I would hope that they would profit from the deal.

Free wi-fi for all San Franciscans is a good thing. Google provides free wi-fi for everyone at Union Square right now. It’s fantastic. I love it.

Thanks for covering this news and blogging on it Katie. I hope that the politicians can get to the point where they realize that free wi-fi for all of us is more important than pork agenda items like Google providing Google buses to drive kids to the zoo. Kids can take public transportation to the zoo. One of my favorite things to do with my children is to have them tell me an animal and then I do an image search for that animal and show them photos. I can do this because I have internet access. Let’s give internet access to those in San Francisco who can’t afford it today.

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