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SF Wi-Fi 'elephant' tramples Google, mayor

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San Francisco's showcase Wi-Fi project is turning into a quagmire for both city mayor Gavin Newsom, and Google.

Newsom announced the project in October 2005, and Google showered the mayor with affection: a trip to Davos in Larry and Sergei's private jet, and the company offered him campaign contributions. Not surprisingly, Earthlink, Google's partner which will actually be doing the work, was announced the winner in April last year.

But Earthlink had two formidable obstacles to contend with: a challenging topology for wireless deployment - San Francisco officially has 43 hills - and the city's taste for political combat.

While Wi-Fi evangelists urged the city not to look a gift horse in the mouth, city supervisors had other ideas.

On January 9th, Supervisor Jake McGoldrick tabled a long overdue motion requesting a cost-benefit analysis. The "free" connection speeds barely met FCC definitions, he said, and were far short of other municipalities 1Mbit/s Wi-Fi connections. Wi-Fi was rapidly obsoleted, he argued, and the city would serve its citizens better with subsidized, city-managed fiber network, with Wi-Fi for a few open areas.

"It is a very slow system that very few people would want to use," he concluded. McGoldrick's motion urged the city to restrict the Earthlink deployment to a couple of mile-square test areas. It struck a chord with residents who worried that it was creating a private monopoly.

Two days later, a report prepared for the Supes' Audit and Oversight Committee by the Budget Analyst concluded that an alternative city-owned fiber project was worth considering. Although it would incur a capital investment of between $6m and $10m, and cost up to $2m a year to run, this could be offset by attracting commercial services. When it's not hampered by "net neutrality" legislation, an IP pipe provides a viable alternative to cable. Wi-Fi is cheaper, but it doesn't have such scope for commercial services - it won't run TV or movies on demand.

(Other cities have been finding Wi-Fi promises don't match up to reality.)

The BA's report was flawed however, in that it proposes doing fiber on the cheap; the 1.5Mbit/s domestic connections it costed won't run IPTV either; while St Paul's proposed $300m fiber project and Utah's 100mbit/s Project Utopia will.

For good measure, the report suggested the city "start over".

Then it emerged that a third of the city's residents would have to pay between $50 and $100 for a booster. As we noted at the time, the RFP only specified access in street-facing rooms.

The only upside for Newsom is that the debate on whether or not to invest in infrastructure is settled.

But as one Wi-Fi activist told the San Francisco Bay Guardian, "It's the mayor's introduction of an insufficient plan that's causing the situation to become political, when really it's a technical question... This is no time to be building a white elephant." ®

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