Selling wi-fi


Just before a Board of Supervisors committee finally considered Mayor Gavin Newsom's controversial free wireless Internet plan May 14, supporters of the mayor staged a rally on the steps of City Hall. The event featured African American ministers, Latino students, and Chinese senior citizens demanding that the city hurry up and bridge the digital divide by approving Newsom's deal with Google and EarthLink.

"Wi-fi for All" was part of an aggressive push for the plan by Newsom's reelection campaign team — which organized the rally and a letter-writing campaign aimed at supervisors — yet one that has been denounced as a race-baiting fraud by critics who have long argued that the deal does little to put connected computers in the hands of poor folks and that it's a better deal for the corporate partners than it is for city residents.

"Chinatown is at the bottom of the line," Self Help for Seniors president Annie Chung announced as busloads of seniors stood up and silently waved their "Wi-fi for All" signs on cue.

"Forty percent of the Latino community do not own or have access to a computer," city resident Ricardo Alva added, while Rev. Arnold Townsend thundered, "Everybody who is opposed to this is going home and online."

Yet Newsom's contract effectively creates a world of first- and second-class cybercitizens. Those who can afford to pay $22 a month can sign up for EarthLink's premium service, which gives them a competitive and fast connection speed of 1,000 kilobits per second, plus free relay equipment (such as an antenna if they have reception problems). But those who can't afford to pay get an account that lets Google do free market research in exchange for slow-speed (300 kbps) service that does not cover the $50 to $200 cost of equipment they might need to receive a connection indoors.

A new study by the Office of the Controller finds that 82 percent of city residents use a computer at home and 80 percent of those use it to access the Internet. So the service is aimed primarily at the 20 percent of folks who have a computer but no Internet access, those who might want to drop their existing service, or those who want to Web-surf in parks and other public spaces. The controller's City Survey 2007 also notes that while more than 80 percent of the north, central, and west regions are connecting to the Internet at home, only 70 percent of the southeastern neighborhoods do so.

"Between 1998 and 2007, Southeast residents bought home PCs at a slower pace," the survey states, observing that whites are "2.1 times more likely to have Internet access than African Americans." Of non–college graduates, "those over 60 years and particularly Latinos, those without access are even less likely now to get online."

So there's a certain logic to the mayor's use of the race card, at least until the public scrutinizes whether universality of access, speed, service, equipment, support, and training are guaranteed under his deal. But Newsom has been unwilling to discuss the proposal with the Board of Supervisors or entertain modifying the deal since he emerged from a Google-chartered Bombardier corporate jet with visions of free wi-fi dancing in his head following an economic summit in Davos, Switzerland.

But supervisors have pushed the city's Department of Telecommunications and Information Services (DTIS) to investigate the feasibility of city-owned wi-fi and high-speed fiber optics.