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Alongside freedom of religion and protection against cruel and unusual punishment, Internet access through a municipal Wi-Fi network is now to be reckoned a basic human right. Or so says San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, who announced a free wireless-access project called TechConnect in August 2005.

The proclamation was characteristic of Newsom; he combines a proclivity for media grandstanding with a weird indifference to mundane political chores like passing legislation and brokering deals among contrary factions. Still, Newsom is hardly alone in supporting urban wireless Internet coverage: some advocates of the technology argue that it could bring disadvantaged Americans the same dramatic benefits that a $100 laptop would supposedly provide in the developing world. With local governments asserting that such networks could cut their operational costs and boost economic development, more than 300 municipal Wi-Fi projects are now proceeding in the United States, according to data compiled by CNET.

Is the municipal Wi-Fi boom a real advance for America’s cities or a well-intentioned boondoggle? Critics argue that current Wi-Fi technology, with its slow connection speed, will be obsolete by the time most municipal networks are completed. In Orlando, FL, and some Asian cities, meanwhile, pilot Wi-Fi networks have gone largely unused by residents. The one project universally cited as a success–Philadelphia’s–was preceded by careful thinking about why communities need wireless Internet access, who would use it, and at what cost.

Whatever strategic thinking was being done by TechConnect’s planners seemingly went out the window in February 2006, when Google, together with EarthLink, joined the bidding to become the supplier of San Francisco’s network. Newsom had been cultivating connections with the search company since January 2005, when he was reported to have hitched a ride home from the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, aboard a jet chartered by Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. (He later reimbursed the company for the cost of a commercial flight.)

San Francisco’s specs for the network were forbidding. The city’s request for proposals insisted that the network function seamlessly for users traveling at 30 miles per hour, a trick Wi-Fi engineers haven’t quite perfected. The city also called for 95 percent outdoor and 90 percent indoor coverage citywide, which would require an unusually large number of Wi-Fi access points in any city, let alone one as hilly as San Francisco.

In their proposal, Google and ­EarthLink strove to meet these expectations. Google would foot the bill for free Wi-Fi service, which would run–or crawl–at 300 kilobits per second, about five times the speed of a dial-up modem connection. EarthLink would build the network hardware and offer, for $20 a month, a megabit-per-second service with customer support. The proposed network would require at least seven Wi-Fi access points per square kilometer, mounted on city property such as light poles and traffic lights. At this density, the network would meet the city’s coverage goal but would not be guaranteed to reach above the second floor of buildings. In April, San Francisco provisionally accepted the Google-EarthLink proposal, pending successful contract negotiations.

In May, however, when I sat through a LAFCO meeting (California’s Local Agency Formation Commissions handle county contractual service agreements like the proposed Google-EarthLink Wi-Fi deal) at San Francisco City Hall, I got the impression that city managers remain either deliberately indifferent to or clueless about fundamental aspects of the Google-­EarthLink proposal. Of the three commission members present, one remained silent throughout. A second–Tom Ammiano, a former stand-up comic who once ran for mayor–admitted that he was still using dial-up. Otherwise, the meeting was uninterruptedly run by Chairperson Ross Mirkarimi.

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