Wifi wars

Wifi wars: Google and Earthlink try to sell a citywide broadband service -- while the city looks at doing the job itself
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sarah@sfbg.com

Representatives of Google and EarthLink showed up at the Glen Park Recreation Center on Dec. 7 to push their plan to blanket the city with a wireless network they claim will provide free Internet for all. It was one of a dozen such dog and pony shows around the city this fall as the proposal heads for a decision by the Board of Supervisors, which will also consider municipally controlled alternatives to this public-private partnership.

Google's Dan Zweifach kicked off the presentation by describing a world in which "you can make an international call for free, download music in Golden Gate Park, or check the Muni schedule from a bus station."

It's an intriguing concept that faces challenges unique to San Francisco's hilly, fog-prone, and built-out topography, which could interfere with wi-fi signals. To address these challenges, EarthLink's Stephen Salinger told the audience of a dozen, his company plans to affix 40 wi-fi nodes (boxes that exchange signals with computers and other wi-fi devices) per square mile atop 1,500 light poles citywide.

At least that's the idea. "If the poles aren't city-owned resources, we have to negotiate with the private owner," Salinger explained, noting that the city owns about half the light poles and Pacific Gas and Electric owns the rest.

The proposed wi-fi blanket is projected to cost $8 million to $10 million to build and millions more to manage, with EarthLink in charge of the nodes and Google buying bandwidth from EarthLink so it can offer free wi-fi access throughout San Francisco's almost 50-square-mile service area.

But what exactly does free wi-fi access mean? According to Zweifach and Salinger, access will be "completely free to the city and to taxpayers," just as Mayor Gavin Newsom promised in 2004. Unless, that is, people want faster access, in which case they can shell out $20 a month for EarthLink's premium service.

"At 300 kbps, the basic service should be fast enough to download music or videos, but it could be a little slower, which is why we have the premium service," Salinger said. "The more people connect, the more speed and quality decreases."

Whether the free service will actually be a bait and switch is just one of many concerns critics of the proposal have raised. Some don't trust the profit-driven corporations, some don't like the wi-fi technology, and others criticize the sometimes-secretive process that led to the selection of Google and EarthLink. The supervisors have meanwhile ordered studies for a municipal broadband system and a municipal wi-fi system, both due back early in 2007, about the time when the Google-EarthLink system is expected to come to the board for approval.

The community meetings were designed to address myriad concerns, such as whether the wi-fi system will come with enough training and support so all residents will be able to use it. "We'll partner with local businesses and individuals who want to get involved," Zweifach said. "We have 109 languages that people will be able to access. We'll provide multilingual training."

That said, Zweifach noted that Google is only pledging online tech support, meaning those wanting phone support will have to sign up for EarthLink's premium service.

Grilled about privacy concerns, Zweifach claimed, "We don't track or look at Web sites that anyone visits, but we do look at the number of computers accessing a node. But there's not much personal information needed to access the service.