Do wi-fi right -- ourselves

Wi-fi is almost certainly not the technology on which to base a citywide network.
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OPINION Although it's only a "declaration of policy," Proposition J (the mayor's wi-fi initiative) is garnering a lot of opposition. Taken at face value, the initiative seems like a no-brainer: of course we should have free, high-speed wi-fi for everyone, with adequate privacy and no public money, right now. The initiative makes it sound like all we have to do is bend over and pick up the golden wi-fi network lying in the street. Like other stories about precious paving, though, the reality is considerably less shiny.

Since Mayor Gavin Newsom filed Prop. J to whip up support for his proposed EarthLink network, that company pulled out of the San Francisco deal. EarthLink also pulled out of its agreement with Houston (paying $5 million in penalties) and laid off almost all of its municipal network division staff.

Prop. J was created to rally support for a deal that doesn't exist anymore. Should we pass it anyway? Well, the problems that Prop. J points out are real. At least a fifth of San Franciscans have no home Internet access, and many more residents have only dial-up access.

Unfortunately, Prop. J is written to make a political point, not to ensure universal Internet access. In order to make that point, it insists on two features that were part of the EarthLink deal but don't make sense if we're actually trying to achieve access for everyone.

First, wi-fi is almost certainly not the technology on which to base a citywide network. It's suited to quick-and-dirty outdoor networks or to extending indoor networks to multiple rooms, but as a network that's supposed to cover large outdoor areas and reach into buildings, it's got serious limitations.

A smarter approach would likely use wi-fi only where it makes the most sense as part of a larger network. A truly universal network would likely utilize a combination of wi-fi, the fiber-optic line that San Francisco already owns, and possibly other technologies, like copper wires or fixed-point wireless.

Second, Prop. J specifies that the network be built as a public-private partnership. The fall of the EarthLink deal proves that the fantasy of a company coming into San Francisco and giving everyone free Internet is just that: a fantasy. Simply declaring that we want a public-private partnership is not going to conjure some unknown company out of thin air to build a universal network in San Francisco.

Although the measure is not legally binding, many of its opponents, including several unions and a number of community groups, understandably fear that it'll be used as an excuse to rush into a bad deal. If we've committed to a public-private partnership and "implementing ... agreements as quickly as possible," we're not exactly staking out a great bargaining position.

The mayor seems dead set on finding a private company to build this network, whether or not that makes sense. He's likely to use Prop. J, if it passes, as a way to ignore the likelihood that we're better off pursuing a city-run network. If ensuring that every San Franciscan has access to the Internet is something we really feel is important, it's something that's worth doing right, and if we want to make sure it's done right, we should do it ourselves.

Sasha Magee

Sasha Magee is an activist who blogs at leftinsf.com.

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