Wifi wars - Page 2

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

Just an e-mail address, a user name, and a password, so it's more anonymous than most."

"But if you're using our premium service, we'll have your billing information," Salinger interjected, adding that with 5.3 million customers, "EarthLink is at the forefront of protecting privacy."

When a self-professed cancer survivor in the Glen Canyon audience accused Zweifach and Salinger of "discussing everything except health effects of blanketing SF with electromagnetic radiation," Zweifach countered that "wi-fi nodes are low-power devices, much like garage door monitors, which, if you were at the same level at a distance of 10 feet, would have 100 times less radiation than a cell phone. At streetlamp level, and therefore not on the same level as people, they have 1,000 times less radiation."

Reached by phone the following week, Ron Vinzon, head of the city's Department of Telecommunications and Information Services, waxed enthusiastic about free wi-fi, a concept Newsom has promoted since his October 2004 State of the City speech.

"DTIS's goal is to make sure we have ubiquitous service 24-7, whether you're on the top of Twin Peaks or over at Cayuga Park," Vinzon told the Guardian. "We're going to do the necessary testing to make sure it works well in all areas of San Francisco and that the entire city has reliable service. The only issue will be speed, not access."

But while Google-EarthLink hopes to secure a four-year contract with an option to renew three times, Vinzon said the city wants a flexible deal, "so that in four years we can do another needs assessment and the city would have the option to buy out EarthLink's network at a fair market rate."

Asked about the possibility of an alternative digital universe in which the city would deliver free Internet access via municipally owned fiber-optic lines, Vinzon sounded slightly nonplussed. Specuutf8g that a wi-fi network could be up and running in 12 to 18 months while the municipal fiber route could take four years to roll out, Vinzon asked, "How many generations of kids do we want to see left out? When I talk to teachers, it's clear who has a computer and Internet access at home. Those without are not doing as well. So we don't want to address this in four years. We want to address it now. Doing municipal on the back of those who don't have access right now is unfortunate."

Acknowledging that for wi-fi access to be truly meaningful, residents will need training and hardware — "If you don't know how to use or even have a computer, obviously you won't be able to bridge the digital divide," — Vinzon added that the city will release plans in the next couple of weeks to address digital inclusion concerns.

But with an officially commissioned report on municipal fiber set to thud onto the supervisors' desks in January 2007, questions clearly remain as to whether the city would be better off rushing into a private partnership to put a wireless and not entirely free cloud over the city or taking its time to explore a system that could prove more reliable and ultimately less expensive in the long run. *