Those reports, finally made available this spring, confirmed what wi-fi experts had been saying all along: municipal wi-fi is feasible, and fiber is a necessary backbone and complementary service in a city whose famed fog and hills make wireless Internet access a spotty proposition at best and a nonexistent one at worst.
Tim Pozar, CEO of United Layer, which installed free Internet at the Alice Griffith housing project, told us, "The extreme difficulty of reaching users inside of buildings makes the Google-EarthLink wi-fi strategy the worst possible model for bringing Internet to low-income communities which don't have it yet."
Eric Brooks, a member of PublicNet San Francisco, a newly formed coalition of community groups and Internet professionals, dismisses as "ludicrous" the notion that people will cancel cable and DSL to sign up for EarthLink's premium service, which the controller's report said would save city residents $9 million to $18 million annually.
"I have dial-up, and I'm on the third floor of my building, so I'm not gonna cancel my dial-up, because the wi-fi won't be reliable," Brooks says. And Ralf Muehlen, director of SFLan, a nonprofit that already provides free wi-fi Internet access to hundreds of San Franciscans, wonders who is going to want to pay EarthLink $22 a month "when AT&T sells a 50 percent faster service for $20."
Asked about these concerns, Emy Tseng, project director of the city's Digital Inclusion program, acknowledges that wi-fi is like cell phones and broadcast TV when it comes to spotty, unreliable reception.
"You might get a stronger signal if your window is facing a light pole or if you have a wireless router, like an antenna or rabbit ears," says Tseng, who is currently talking to manufacturers about getting discounts on computers and relay equipment in an effort to reach an estimated 150,000 underserved residents.
According to the Newsom-negotiated contract, EarthLink will pay the city 5 percent of gross revenues from its subscription services, and these funds will allow the city to try to bridge the gaps in the city's ever-widening digital divide. Brian Roberts of the DTIS says the city anticipates receiving a minimum of $75,000 in digital inclusion funds per quarter if all goes well and at least $200,000 if the deal breaks down.
"Cost is becoming less of a factor as computer equipment prices fall," says Tseng, who is trying to build community-based support programs within neighborhoods. She believes the two-square-mile pilot project required of EarthLink to prove that its network is feasible will be built in underserved neighborhoods, not downtown, as some critics have feared.
Yet the American Civil Liberties Union warns that Newsom's deal raises unresolved security and privacy concerns. Blogger Sasha Magee of www.leftinsf.com gives Newsom credit for having opened up a serious discussion about digital inclusion and the government's role in trying to ensure that everyone has access to the opportunities the Internet represents: "To his credit, the contributions of activists and service providers around digital inclusion programs have been listened to," Magee wrote. "What has not been listened to, however, is the input on what the network should be."