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.
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