Mirkarimi, a Green Party member sporting a modish soul patch and representing District 5, which includes Haight-Ashbury, at least posed some of the right questions. Would users of the ad-supported Wi-Fi simply go through a Google portal page, he asked, or would they also have to suffer through pop-ups? And since Google said that its technology could “target advertisements to specific geographical locations and to user interests,” what would prevent users’ locations from being tracked? To such questions, the response from the bureaucrats at the city’s Department of Telecommunications and Information Services (DTIS), and from the private consultants they’d hired, was essentially, “Wise up and quit griping–the city is getting a great deal for free.”
The DTIS officials were equally unforthcoming when asked whether it made much sense for San Francisco to effectively grant Google and EarthLink a monopoly on wireless Internet service for the proposed 10-year term of the contract, given how rapidly information technology advances. As Ralf Muehlen, director of the nonprofit Wi-Fi network SFLan, pointed out, “In 2021, 300 kilobits per second is going to seem a bit ridiculous. … it’s a great solution for, like, 1996.”
Philadelphia’s Wi-Fi network is different. EarthLink will finance, build, and manage that network–meaning it will pay for infrastructure worth an estimated $7 to $10 million–and then share revenues with the city’s Wireless Philadelphia initiative, while selling bandwidth to other Internet service providers. Future network upgrades are written into the contract.
EarthLink isn’t offering Philadelphia a better deal out of humanitarianism but because the city asked for one. Philadelphia conducted a detailed technical study, which included pilot projects in four different parts of the city, before issuing its request for proposals. It also convened a number of focus groups across the city’s economic strata. City representatives worked with ethnic groups, neighborhoods, church groups, and large businesses to ensure that programs to reach low-income communities were in place, then hosted several neighborhood launch parties to draw attention to the network and the programs, according to Craig Settles, a wireless-technology consultant and author of Fighting the Good Fight for Municipal Wireless (2006). San Francisco, by contrast, has not conducted even a basic feasibility study.
In short, Philadelphia’s city government did its homework and knew what to ask for. But San Franciscans fear that Newsom will repeat his 2005 deal with Comcast, in which the city extended the company’s cable franchise for four years without negotiating service improvements or lower subscription fees.
Why would it matter that Philadelphia got itself a better deal, as long as Google and EarthLink provided San Francisco with functioning municipal Wi-Fi? Because it’s not a given that Wi-Fi networks pay off for cities, or even that they have many users. In January 2005, the city of Orlando pulled the plug on its free downtown Wi-Fi service because only 27 people a day were accessing it, at a cost to the city of $1,800 a month, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Though San Francisco’s potential network might be larger, that only makes questions of design more urgent: the city could discover too late that its network was too expensive, too spotty, or already dated.
Mark Williams is a contributing writer at Technology Review.
San Francisco’s municipal Wi-Fi initiative