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San Francisco's proposed Wi-Fi network facing angry mobs

Pitchforks out for Google, Earthlink, and tech-happy mayor

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The city-wide Wi-Fi network being pushed by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom faces two important hearings this week as a motley band of critics mount a series of challenges to the project, which would be jointly operated by Google and Earthlink.

The concerns include the health effects of antennas, whether proposed terms would jeopardize the privacy and free speech of those who use the network, and the appropriateness of the city entering into an exclusive contract that some say amounts to a giveaway of public resources.

A meeting scheduled for Tuesday before the city's Board of Supervisors will discuss whether officials must conduct an environmental review of the proposed network before it could go into place. In April, San Francisco's planning commission said the network was exempt from such a requirement, but a grassroots group has since challenged the decision.

San Francisco is part of a growing number of cities grappling with the challenge of providing its citizens with dependable and affordable access to the internet. Under an agreement Newsom reached in January, Earthlink would pay the city $2m over four years in exchange for the right to build, own and operate a wireless network.

Newsom has made the proposal a centerpiece of his administration, arguing that it will help bridge the digital divide without saddling taxpayers with exorbitant costs. Others have been considerably less sanguine, complaining - among other things - that the proposal is based on antiquated and unreliable technology.

A vote requiring the review could prove fatal to the proposed network, which is becoming an increasingly contentious issue between Newsom and his critics. Environmental reviews can take as long as a year to complete, a sizable delay that could ultimately cool enthusiasm for the project.

It would also provide ammunition for the San Francisco Neighborhood Antenna-Free Union (SNAFU), which warns that the blanketing of access points on city light poles could harm residents' health. The group - which has been active in the past in protesting the introduction of cellular phone antennas - says studies suggest the microwave radiation that would be generated by more than 2,000 access points throughout the city could cause headaches, lowered immune responses and even cancer, according to this YouTube video.

A second battlefront will open on Wednesday, when the city's Budget and Finance Committee is scheduled to vote whether to approve the proposal. Critics including the American Civil Liberties Union are urging residents to show up en masse to speak out against terms that the group says threaten user privacy.

Specifically, they say, under the terms negotiated by Newsom, Earthlink and Google are free to track who users are, where they are geographically located and what sites they browse and to store that information for an indefinite period of time.

Critics have challenged other details of the plan, including speed requirements, which call for only 300KBPS for a free service and 1MBPS for service that will cost about $20 per month, and the decision to give Earthlink the right to use city light poles for 16 years.

Aaron Peskin, the Board of Supervisors President, has recently sought to address many of the complaints by pushing for changes in the plan. Among other things, he wants to boost the speed of the free version to 500KBPS and tighten information Earthlink and Google can collect and store about users. He's also proposed cutting the term of the contract in half, to 8 years.

Peskin has emerged as the self-appointed peacemaker between supervisors who have thrown their weight behind the plan and several who have said they won't vote in favor of the plan unless substantial changes are made. "He wants there to be free wireless internet, but he also doesn't want Earthlink and Google to have a monopoly," said Nick Butson-Wedewer, an aide to Peskin.

This week promises to be do-or-die time for Peskin. ®

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