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Better late than never: After a 8-year wait, Google brings free WiFi to San Francisco parks

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It was almost eight years ago when Google (s goog) toyed with the idea of launching free Wi-Fi in San Francisco public spaces. Google’s radical idea — championed by angel investor Chris Sacca, who at that time was a Google employee — came under criticism and even cellular pioneer Marty Cooper worried about its cost. For political reasons, that deal fell through. Google moved on, offered free Wi-Fi in other cities, started building fiber networks and also launched balloon-based broadband.

It seems we have come a full circle. The company is finally ready to launch free (rather, Google ad-supported) Wi-Fi networks in at least 31 parks in San Francisco. These parks include iconic locations such as the Mission Dolores Park and Alamo Square. The need for Wi-Fi networks has escalated since the launch of the iPhone. Wi-Fi has become crucial part of our state of connectedness.

“Google has enlisted, an association of San Francisco tech companies founded by angel investor Ron Conway, to help administer the program, including managing equipment installation and maintenance and doing community outreach,” the San Francisco Chronicle, which first broke the story, reported.

The lack of free/public Wi-Fi networks when compared to other cities such as New York has been particularly amusing. San Francisco, which likes to consider itself as the epicenter of the tech-business, has been slow in adopting Wi-Fi and newer technologies. Anyway, this is a good development — though I am guessing it will come at a cost: Google tracking you wherever you go, even when chilling in the park.

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3 Responses to “Better late than never: After a 8-year wait, Google brings free WiFi to San Francisco parks”

  1. Derek Kerton

    Om, The first paragraph somewhat rewrites history. If it fell through because of politics, then that simply prevented it from falling through for technical reasons. At the time, MuniWiFi was all the rage. Every mayor needed to have a MuniWiFi plan in place.

    But as the towns started deploying these networks, with a vision for blanket coverage, they quickly learned that the promises of the vendors didn’t match real world performance. Range was half of promised, which in an area meant a 4x increase in hardware nodes. See Chaska Minnesota as a poster child of, first: successful muniwifi case studies; then second: failed muniwifi case studies.

    Some towns that deployed in winter found that the networks lost signal when leaves grew back in spring. Most towns found that in-building performance didn’t meet expectations, so they needed to augment their CPE with external antennas. This drove up the cost, the complexity, and killed the “The users already have the CPE” argument. So, my point is, these aren’t political problems, they are technical and financial.

    There are reasons far beyond politics that Google launched Mountain View, then halted their muniwifi plans for the entire nation. If San Francisco politics is what killed it here, then why did it not emerge everywhere else? And Earthlink, Google’s then partner, also quit the business…after winning many muni contracts and leaving cities in the lurch (and better off for it.)

    Flash forward to today, and three key things have changed: 1) WiFi n and ac have replaced b and g, with far better range and throughput, 2) as you said, the number of devices and the demand has shot through the roof, 3) the goalposts were rationally moved a lot closer as we changed from a unrealistic vision of blanket city-wide coverage to the more reasonable goal of hotzone coverage.

    Blanket muniwifi coverage was a bad idea then, and remains so today. Hotzone coverage was a great idea then, and is more so now. Thanks Google, and bring it on.