• United States
Senior U.S. Correspondent

San Francisco leaders voice concerns about Wi-Fi project

Dec 19, 20054 mins
MobileNetwork SecuritySmall and Medium Business

San Francisco’s plan for citywide Wi-Fi ran into some friction Friday from a local regulatory agency.

The government of the City and County of San Francisco is readying a request for proposal (RFP) for the wireless network, which is intended to provide free or affordable Internet access throughout most of the city. Several possible partners – including Google, EarthLink, Motorola and a local nonprofit project called SFLan – have already expressed interest in the project through an earlier request for information. The San Francisco plan would become one of the largest rollouts yet of government-initiated broadband, a concept that has generated heated political discussion in the past several months.

At a hearing Friday, some members of San Francisco’s Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) grilled Chris Vein, director of the city’s Department of Technology and Information Services (DTIS), about the process of deciding how to build and operate the network.

LAFCO, made up of San Francisco county supervisors and members of the public, has a broad oversight role, including approval of district boundaries and annexation of land as well as contract approvals. The agency’s aim in the hearing was to stimulate discussion, supervisor and LAFCO member Jake McGoldrick said in an interview after the meeting.

County Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi and other LAFCO members said they fear a deal like San Francisco’s current franchise agreement with cable operator Comcast, in which the board of supervisors has been presented with already negotiated franchise deals that it must approve or vote down. DTIS handles cable franchise administration and other communications and IT responsibilities for the city as well as spearheading the Wi-Fi project.

Vein, Mayor Gavin Newsom’s point person for the project, said the city might propose a franchise agreement or another type of deal, but would include the board of supervisors in the process.

“Our intent is to have those discussions with you before we get to the point of having to say, ‘Here it is, respond to it, and if you don’t like it, tough,'” Vein said. Elements such as the length of the agreement or the terms for renewal could be modified to give the public more control, he said.

The hearing also aired views on the political debate over public broadband, with Mirkarimi and McGoldrick each saying municipal ownership should be given the benefit of the doubt.

The city should be seeking the best possible service for city residents and visitors, McGoldrick said.

“My first blush on this would be [to make it] publicly controlled, publicly governed, publicly owned. I would start from there and say, ‘Why not?’ And if we can’t say, ‘Why not?’, then why-fi?” McGoldrick quipped. “Let’s figure out who to do that, unless there’s an argument that says that beast is far too risky to put into the arena.” One of his chief concerns is to give residents access to information that isn’t filtered by large media corporations, he said.

Vein pointed to attacks on municipal broadband by service providers and others who are concerned about issues including government control over content and access. He faces a balancing act between the city’s needs and the need to make a good deal, he said.

“We’re criticized for a public-sector model and we’re criticized for a private-sector model,” Vein said.

“What we’re trying to do with the RFP, based on what we’ve learned from other cities, other jurisdictions, and the comments coming in from the public and the vendors, is crafting a [plan] that gives us an affordable wireless broadband system that meets the needs of all those jurisdictions, and … we will craft the business arrangement as we move forward,” Vein said. The city wants to keep its options open until it receives responses to its RFP, he said.