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SF Wi-Fi plan with Google and Earthlink shelved until July

Concerns over quality and privacy not going away

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Analysis San Francisco's plan to tap the resources of Google and EarthLink to blanket the city with free, sluggish Wi-Fi has faced another delay, as members of the Budget and Finance Committee voted to postpone proceedings until July 11.

Since it was finalized in January, the plan has sharply divided San Francisco's elected officials. It calls for EarthLink to pay the city $2m over four years for the right to build, own and maintain a Wi-Fi network that would be ubiquitous throughout the hilly, seven-mile by seven-mile city. EarthLink would be permitted to sell a 1 MBPS service for $22 per month, but would also be required to offer a free service that offers 300 KBPS speed.

Mayor Gavin Newsom, still trying to regain political momentum after his affair with the wife of a re-election manager came to light, has championed the plan as a way to bridge the digital divide without having to drain city coffers. Prior to yesterday's committee hearing, Newsom encouraged low-income supporters to attend a rally outside City Hall. Bearing signs that read "Free Wi-Fi Now," they pressed the case that supervisors who opposed the plan don't care about supplying internet connectivity to the city's neediest.

Several supervisors, however, have convincingly made the argument that Newsom's plan to provide free service at painfully slow speeds amounts to little more than sweeping the city's poorest into a new sort of ghetto. Those of us who can afford it will continue using services with bandwidth of anywhere from 1 MB to 10 MB to consume video, chat with Skype or use 3-D, immersive services such as Second Life (which we're told is the wave of the future). Meanwhile, the mostly black and Asian people who showed at yesterday's rally will be forced to ride at the back of Newsom's digital bus. Or so opponents' argument goes.

Besides the sluggishness, there are other quality concerns. According to a recent piece in Business Week, wireless consultant Novarum found it was able to get connections only 72 per cent of the time when trying to access 20 sites in Anaheim, California, where EarthLink is currently setting up a network that would be similar to San Francisco's. Critics note that, in the absence of special gear, the EarthLink network won't deliver a signal to people who live higher then two stories high or whose living spaces are too far from the street.

Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, also point to privacy concerns. To subsidize the free service, those using it agree to allow Google to track information about their surfing habits. There currently are no mechanisms in place to allow users to surf anonymously or pseudonymously. "The contract, as written, is akin to someone following you in the library to monitor and record what books you are browsing," the ACLU warns.

Several supes, led by Jake McGoldrick, have pushed for a city-owned or at least city-operated network. While coming with significantly higher startup costs, that route put quality, reliability and privacy ahead of convenience.

Until yesterday's vote, Newsom had reason for optimism. Last week, the city's Office of the Controller issued a report projecting the plan would bridge the city's digital divide and estimating residents could save $9m to $18m in annual fees they otherwise would pay for broadband connectivity. ®

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