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High-tech to no-tech: San Francisco's troubled network ambitions

Molasses for free, lightning for a king's ransom

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As doubts grow over the approval of San Francisco's proposed deal to build a citywide wireless network with EarthLink, critics of the effort are putting forth alternatives. Like the current plan, negotiated behind closed doors between Mayor Gavin Newsom and the ISP, none of them are anywhere near perfect.

The current plan, which faces an uncertain fate in the Board of Supervisors, would allow EarthLink to own the WiFi network and, though an arrangement with Google, offer a paltry 300 kbps for free and a moderately more tolerable 1Mbps for $22 per month.

Critics argue that Net access is as fundamental as water and sewers, and as such should be owned by taxpayers. They also say that the network's underpinnings, built on 802.11b, are obsolete already and will only grow more so over the 10 or more years it would likely be in operation.

"They're going to have a bit of grief in trying to maintain the network and mitigate interference," says Tim Pozar, principal at network service provider United Layer and a critic of the mayor's plan. A former radio engineer, he says WiFi is no match for San Francisco's hilly terrain, rainy season and the host of radio signals already carried on the 2.4 GHz spectrum.

Hey, Pozar

Pozar's alternative would push data into homes and businesses at a significantly faster speed, using more than 220 strands of fiber he says the city already has rights to operate. It would deliver speeds of about 10Mbits per second or more to end users and wouldn't be susceptible to radio transmissions and other types of interference.

With city-backed networks being built or already running in some 300 US cities, San Francisco already lags behind much of the country in providing its citizens with ubiquitous Internet access. The city's attempt to catch up is being further slowed as complex technical issues get superimposed on a host of political controversies.

Chief among the latter is the cost of connecting fiber to the hundreds of thousands of households and businesses. In a state that requires a two-thirds majority to approve new taxes, raising the money to pay for the considerable cost of connecting homes to the fiber backbone could be a monumental task.

Pozar estimates his plan would cost $250m, a figure that could run much higher. Whatever the price is, Pozar argues the city could recoup its costs by setting up a nonprofit organization to sell services to businesses. (A city study on the feasibility of a city-owned fiber network estimated its impact could run from a deficit of $1.4m to a profit of $900,000.)

Ron Vinson, chief administrative officer for the San Francisco department overseeing the proposed network, says Pozar's plan is unworkable for other reasons. First, he says it's unclear if the city has rights to use the fiber. He also argues it would take years to roll out a fiber network, doing little for people who need Net access now. "We're talking about people who are coming online for the first time," he says.

Further clouding the debate are people who say the proper approach is for San Francisco to offer a combination of wireless and fiber. Among those are Craig Settles, an Internet consultant and the author of a book about municipal networks. He says fiber is needed to deliver applications that require huge amounts of bandwidth, while wireless would open up new ways for roving government servants and businesspeople to work.

According to James Hettrick, CIO of the Southern California city of Loma Linda that has its own municipal fiber network, San Francisco's proposed plan is okay as a start, but he says San Francisco officials are fooling themselves if they think it is anything more than a temporary solution.

"Ultimately they have to figure out how to solve this problem or they'll be a tier one city that's abandoned by their tech community." ®

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