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Wi-Fi a basic human right, says SF Mayor

Like gay marriage, but for bloggers

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Newt Gingrich once proposed giving laptops to the homeless - at the same time as he was axing food and medical services for the poor. Now San Francisco's Mayor Gavin Newsom has borrowed a page from his playbook. Wi-Fi is a 'fundamental right', Newsom said today at a press conference.

The city wants to see an "affordable" Wi-Fi network covering the 43 hills, and 49 square miles of San Francisco, and Google is one of the bidders. With the boom-bust city $200 million in the red, Newsom wants taxpayers to contribute as little as possible for the network, estimated to cost between $8 million and $16 million.

It's certainly an ambitious proposal. The city wants the network to work when a connected device is moving at 30mph, so people can use it on the bus.

"Taking advantage of such a portable service would not generate a traffic hazard," the city's technology department advises us.

But it may be enough to cause mass hysteria. Few San Franciscans will believe a MUNI Transit bus even capable of going at 30mph.

The city isn't going to let something as trivial as technical specifications, or physics get in the way. City experts insist that 30mph Wi-Fi is possible with the 802.11b/g network it wants built - but it doesn't say that this isn't part of the spec, and requires expensive additional equipment for each moving vehicle - in this case, a runaway bus.

The goal of the project isn't free Wi-Fi, according to the city's tender, but for an "affordable" service "priced lower than the non-promotional retail rate of comparable offerings on the market."

Newsom says he expects a legal fight, and he'll surely get one. For 3G cellular providers a municipal network blows a hole through their prospects of making any money from data in this lucrative market. Cingular launched W-CDMA here last year, and Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS are just rolling out EVDO now. For operators who blanketed San Francisco with hotspots during the 2003 Wi-Fi bubble, a rival municipal network will mean the end of the road. For local ISPs, already facing likely extinction from the FTC's decision to allow SBC - the monopoly DSL wholesaler - from sharing its lines, there's the prospect of losing fixed broadband business to the wireless network. All face potential threats to future VoIP services too.

And why should 4G network providers ever look again at a market with a monopoly incumbent? Especially if that incumbent is Google. Google already operates hotspots in Union Square, and San Francisco could be the first major conurbation to fall to GoogleNet.

But Newsom relishes a legal fight, even if the odds are stacked against him. Days after his in auguration in 2004, Newsom permitted same sex marriages to take place in City Hall - fully expecting that a state court would strike it down very rapidly. However the publicity made Newsom a nationwide celebrity, and established his formerly shaky (as in non-existent) progressive credentials.

Perhaps that's how we should think of his Muni Wi-Fi campaign. As a sort of gay marriage - but for bloggers. ®

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