San Francisco shows world how not to do Muni Wi-Fi

Vendors invited to write their own monopoly

Comment San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is the very model of a modern politician. A telegenic eunuch without any ready hinterland or beliefs, he presides by gesture and photo-opportunity. Policy is replaced by stunts, whose success is measured by publicity they generate; and political leadership means setting a gently optimistic mood music.

If this sounds familiar to United Kingdom voters, that's not surprising, as Newsom is cut from the same cloth as Tony Blair. Both are technocrats who view any substantial policy task as a question of process issue, or a set of managerial tweaks. (HP's new very model of a modern CEO, Mark Hurd, takes the same approach).

All this is important in the context of municipal Wi-Fi. With their passion for technocratic efficiency, politicians like Newsom and Blair need grand gestures - preferably grand gestures that don't cost the public very much in the short-term - and a municipal city-wide Wi-Fi network fits the bill perfectly.

Wi-Fi is a "basic human right", proclaimed Newsom back in August, as he announced the TechConnect municipal network. The venture has subsequently attracted worldwide attention because nearby Google is one of the bidders, and no corporation can bring the city more of the the magic pixie dust of fame than Google can, right now. Google has since won the contract to provide Wi-Fi for its home town of Mountain View, and before long it announced its ambition to do the same for one of the most celebrated and visited cities in the world.

However, San Francisco's TechConnect venture has done something hitherto thought impossible, and united progressives and conservatives in the city in mutual concern about the venture.

SF resident Kimo Crossman is a Wi-Fi advocate who has closely followed the progress of TechConnect. He wants municipal Wi-Fi, but not on any terms. Newsom's TechConnect is San Francisco's one and only shot to get it right, because it grants a vendor a long-term citywide monopoly, one that could be the worst of all worlds for citizens.

A poorly implemented municipal network that provides only slow, patchy coverage, and exposes the citizens to data harvesting, will nevertheless act as a powerful deterrent to more comprehensive 3G and 4G/WiMAX alternatives: a loss for everyone except the city-blessed monopolist.

The city has grand ambitions for the network.

These include, primarily, "outdoor and in-building access to the greatest extent possible for all municipal employees, residents", "greater efficiency for government service delivery", and "stimulate private investment, competition and consumer choice for broadband services".

As a bonus, the city "anticipates", that it will improve disaster response, improve public safety, and even "enhance healthcare through telemedicine and remote patient care." We can think which deep-pocketed lobbyist influenced this part of the proposal, but perhaps it was one with a new-found healthcare fetish.

That was the dream. What was the reality? An early sign that the bureaucrats tasked to TechConnect were making it up on the hoof came with the initial specification. This called for demanding requirements that TechConnect insisted were industry standards, when they weren't, for example roaming handover at 30mph.

The project attracted over 20 bids, some of which were entirely secret, while others, such as Google's, were 90 per cent redacted. Observers described the first meeting as "embarrassingly disorganized", and the scheme was excluded from the city's Open Government Sunshine Ordinance to protect the vendors commercially sensitive proposals.

Crossman noted how minimal standards floated in the city's initial Request for Information and Comments (RFI/C) were thrown overboard.

The city wanted 1Mbit/s throughput with coverage and 90 per cent coverage in high density apartments. These were drastically cut, and the release yesterday of the RFP confirms critics worst fears.

Crossman's minimal standards for a municipal Wi-Fi network don't seem unreasonable. He says that at a minimum, the network should provide "library/Bank-like privacy and security, disaster-proof communications for all, cell-phone-like coverage."

But in the rush to get San Francisco's muni network up and running, everything must go.

Vendors can write their own privacy policies - a relief to potential operators who want to saturate the city with advertisements.

The minimum bandwidth figures have been scrapped and replaced by an "as slow as you please" policy: vendors don't have to provide a floor for the free-to-all basic service. More worryingly, the winning bid need not provide a disaster-ready network for the city's emergency services, even though mesh Wi-Fi networks have real advantages when commercial cellular operations are KO'd.

As Crossman notes on his blog:

"The City of San Francisco's DTIS/SFPUC Departments released the Municipal Wireless TechConnect RFP without Needs Analysis, Feasibility Study, Financial Analysis and Inclusionary Process as requested by LAFCO."

Vendors will also be allowed to write their own privacy policies. A location aware Wi-Fi network has advertisers whetting their appetites, and there's nothing to stop the SF Muni Wi-Fi winner interrupting a VoIP call as you're walking past Starbucks with a special offer.

The city of San Francisco blesses a local private cable monopoly, and it's about to grant another.

But, hey! While Google's still in the bidding, that should be good for a few headlines.

Proposals are due on February 21.®

Local coverage

Kimo Crossman's blog
Rhymes with Di-Fi: San Francisco Chronicle
Wi-Fi: Who's in control?: San Francisco Bay Guardian

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