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Senior U.S. Correspondent

San Francisco Wi-Fi plan may face political heat

Apr 24, 20063 mins
Cellular NetworksComputers and PeripheralsNetwork Security

San Francisco city official could challenge plans to build citywide Wi-Fi network.

A member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors may challenge the city’s plan to build a municipal Wi-Fi network because he says there was not enough public input in drafting a plan and choosing Google and EarthLink to build and operate the network.

“It really got rammed and jammed and fast-tracked,” Supervisor Jake McGoldrick said in an interview following a meeting Friday of the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), an oversight body for the combined City and County of San Francisco.

“We may be looking here at something that needs to be completely reworked,” McGoldrick said, even though he acknowledged that a vote at the Board of Supervisors on restarting the initiative would probably be close.

McGoldrick’s concerns about public input into the process were among many raised at the meeting.

The project, called TechConnect, was proposed by Mayor Gavin Newsom in 2004 and has been carried out under the city’s Department of Telecommunications and Information Services (DTIS). A Request for Information and Comment last year drew hundreds of public comments. The city issued a Request for Proposals in December, and earlier this month a panel chose Google and EarthLink’s plan. Negotiations with the vendors are expected to begin soon, said Chris Vein, executive director of DTIS.

Under the plan by the two companies, EarthLink would build and operate the network at no charge to the city and Google would sell targeted advertising to support a free 300Kbps service. Another service, offering 1Mbps, would be supported by subscriber charges of about $20 per month.

Some say the free service is too slow already and would be left behind over the proposed 15-year term of a contract.

“In 2021, 300M bps is going to seem a bit ridiculous … it’s a great solution for, like, 1996,” said Ralf Muehlen, director of SFLAN, a free, nonprofit Wi-Fi network in the city. Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who like McGoldrick is also a member of LAFCO, said he fears the free service will miss out on upgrades.

Several speakers voiced concerns about the city handing over its light poles and other assets to one company to mount access points that could interfere with other wireless networks.

“This is basically a giveaway of spectrum, and it’s a giveaway of resources,” said Tim Pozar, COO of UnitedLayer, a San Francisco ISP that has set up WLANs in public housing projects. “If I want to roll out my own wireless network, I very likely won’t be able to.”

Mirkarimi and McGoldrick have advocated closer consideration of having the city own all or part of the network, and questioned why the city picked a plan that uses a fully wireless network instead of taking advantage of an expanding city fiber-optic network to connect the wireless gear to the Internet.

Vein said the RFP (request for proposal) was open to city-ownership plans and that there might be legal constraints on the use of city fiber. Interference won’t be as bad as some critics charge, he said.