Editor's Notes

Why the rush to privatize citywide wireless?
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tredmond@sfbg.com

I don't think anyone except Gavin Newsom's inner circle and the folks who run Google and EarthLink really likes the mayor's wi-fi contract, but it now appears at least possible that the Board of Supervisors will approve some version of it.

Board president Aaron Peskin wants the service improved a bit and is demanding some written guarantees that it will actually work the way it's supposed to. Some opponents of the deal are arguing that it ought to be treated as a franchise, not a simple contract, and they want more legal hurdles. The serious techies say it's the wrong technology anyway and will be outmoded and worthless in just a few years.

But there's something bigger going on here.

A high-speed broadband system for San Francisco isn't a hot dog stand and boat-rental shop in Golden Gate Park. It isn't a restaurant lease on port property. It isn't the naming rights for Candlestick Park or a permit to operate a taxicab or deliver cable TV.

Those are contracts and franchises. This is a piece of municipal infrastructure; it's more like the roads that cars and Muni buses use to carry people around town or the pipes that bring water to our houses or the public schools that educate our kids or the emergency communications system that takes the call when we dial 911.

This is part of the city's future, part of its economic development, part of how its citizens will participate in the political debate, part of how we will all learn and think and talk to each other. This is the new public square, the new commons.

Why in the world would we want to give it to a private company?

I don't care if EarthLink and Google are offering 300 kilobauds per second of download time or 500 or 1,000. I don't care if they promise to give free laptops to anyone who can stand on their head and shout "search engine." I don't care if they promise to paint every light pole in the city green. They are private outfits set up to make a profit for investors. They have no business owning what will soon be the city's primary communication system.

San Francisco has kept private operators from controlling its drinking water. This water is considered a basic part of life, and it's available at low cost: San Franciscans pay less than one one-thousandth the price of bottled water for the stuff that comes out of the tap, and it's almost certainly better. Same with roads and bridges, police and fire protection, and basic education (although that's still a struggle).

I don't get why broadband is any different.

I don't think this would ever have been an issue 50 years ago. The generation that survived the Depression (with massive public-sector investment and ownership) and World War II (with huge excess-profits taxes on big corporations) and built things like the interstate highway system and the University of California didn't see government as evil and inherently dysfunctional. The public paid to invest in public services.

It was Ronald Reagan and his ilk who took a generation disillusioned by Vietnam and Watergate and turned it against the public sector (see "Needed: A Campaign Against Privatization," page 5). Now we've even got a privatized war (and look how well that's going).

The supervisors should get beyond the wi-fi deal's little details and think about what it really means. This is San Francisco. We know better.<\!s>*