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SF Wi-Fi a 'dinosaur deal' for the poor

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San Francisco's municipal Wi-Fi initiative isn't the biggest such project in the world, but it may be the most keenly watched. And after this week's award to Google and Earthlink, the battle to win the best deal for the city's residents is only just starting.

That's largely thanks to San Francisco's activist community, who've tackled the tough questions that evangelist sites like Muniwireless (which rely on technology vendors for sponsorship) have avoided.

As the smoke clears, it's evident that San Francisco has failed to win the kind of deal for its poorer and less computer literate residents than the one Earthlink provided in Philadelphia. In San Francisco, Earthlink will operate the high speed, pay-for service, while Google will operate the free, low-speed tier.

However, while Earthlink provided Philly citizens with 10,000 free computers, and skims a percentage from the paid-for service to fund training initiatives, no such guarantees have been made in Baghdad by the Bay.

"It's very disappointing," said Sydney Levy, program director of Media Alliance and a co-ordinator for Internet 4 Everyone.

He also said the free portion is too slow. While Mountain View residents will get 1mbit/s free from Google, San Francisco's is 300kbit/s.

"It's going to be another digital divide. It's going to be another dinosaur".

In fact, a municipal Wi-Fi network can widen, not close the "digital divide". The Charleston, Ga Post and Courier quotes consultant Craig Settles for the observation that:

"Typically, the people who need internet access the least are the ones who use municipal Wi-Fi the most."

So municipal Wi-Fi simply saves money for the people who can already afford it.

"There is no way you are going to improve or resolve the digital divide issue if all you do is put up the network and say, 'that's it'," Settles said.

The city should have mandated future upgrades, he said. He wants the TechConnect project team to acknowledge that training is essential, and that it isn't starting with a blank piece of paper.

"There are resources being used in local communities that have the expertise to work on chunks of this issue. There are many groups involved in computer training and computer refurbishing - so any solution needs to acknowledge it's not starting from scratch. These groups know how to do it in Spanish and in Chinese, and they know how to do it in BayView."

Two other areas of concern remain unaddressed, according to critics.

An audit by the Electronic Privacy Information Centre earlier this week found the Google/Earthlink bid wanting.

"Both [free and fee] services require the user to sign on, thus creating the opportunity for persistent tracking across sessions. The Google advertising supported service would target advertisements to individuals based on their internet usage and other information," it notes.

Kimo Crossman, the computer consultant and blogger who did more than anyone to expose the backroom machinations of the project, criticizes it for failing to provide the emergency services with guarantees.

Small municipalities have deployed Wi-Fi in combination with VoIP to replace older radio services for the police. Advocates say New Orleans' mesh Wi-Fi network showed its potential for disaster situation. So long as it isn't raining, it isn't foggy, and there are no leaves on the trees.

"There's nothing here for the emergency services. You'd think with the 100 year anniversary of the San Francisco Earthquake, this might have been worth some thought."

TechConnect's criteria for the RFP can be found here.

As with other infrastructure bids, cities get what they ask for. For reasons unknown, San Francisco just didn't ask for very much. ®

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