Free wi-fi for everyone

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EDITORIAL Basic municipal infrastructure — roads, water and sewer pipes, train tracks, airports, that sort of thing — has traditionally been owned and operated by the public sector, and for good reason: private experiments with toll roads, profit-motivated water companies, and even city rail companies have typically been disasters. The fundamental building blocks that hold a city together are public goods, paid for by tax dollars, for use by all, either free or at the lowest possible cost.

We've argued for years that electricity ought to be in that category, and San Francisco is finally taking some cautious baby steps toward public power. But city officials are about to turn what could be the single most significant new piece of infrastructure in our lifetime — broadband Internet service — over to a private consortium. It's a mistake, and the supervisors shouldn't go along with the deal.

Mayor Gavin Newsom has made free universal wi-fi a key part of his political agenda, but through a process that's been secretive and flawed from the start, he has chosen Google and EarthLink to put forward a proposal. As Sarah Phelan reported last week ("Selling Wi-Fi," 12/27/06), the two big tech companies are taking their road show around the city, trying to convince residents and businesses that their plan — which calls for limited free access combined with a fee-based system — will envelop the city in a wi-fi cloud, allowing anyone with a laptop to get instant Internet access anywhere in town, at no cost to taxpayers.

That may be true — but in the process, the city will be giving up a huge part of its future.

Ten years from now, maybe sooner, universal broadband will be as much a part of civic infrastructure as roads are today. Consumers will demand it. Businesses will insist on it. Public education will require it. Providing quality service to everyone — everywhere in town — will be an essential service. Why would we want to leave it to the private sector?

There are all sorts of problems with the Google-EarthLink proposal, starting with its lack of real universal access. Sure, everyone gets a connection — but at 300 kilobytes, it won't be terribly fast. If you want to be able to quickly download music, videos, or large business files, you'll need to pay by the month for an upgrade. Low-income folks, in other words, will be stuck in the slow lane. That's not terribly fair.

It's also not terribly surprising: these companies are out to make money. And over the years, their bottom line will drive the entire program.

There's absolutely no need for that to happen. The city's hired a consultant to look at creating a citywide network of fiber-optic lines under the streets, which is a fine idea, although it would take a few years to build. But even according to the Google-EarthLink consortium's own estimates, the universal wi-fi network will cost only about $10 million. For a big-city public works project, that's nothing. Almost every election, we approve another $100 million or so in bonds — for schools, community college buildings, libraries, parks, and police stations, all worthwhile projects. The city's annual budget is more than $5 billion, and the cost of maintaining the network would run at about $2 million a year. This could turn out to be as important as anything the city ever builds — and it's chump change.

The supervisors need to put the private wi-fi proposal on the shelf and immediately start plans to place a bond act on the next ballot to build a city-owned wi-fi and fiber-optic system that will offer true universal, free, high-speed broadband access for all. *