Stalled connection
Newsom lags in fulfilling his promise of free WiFi

By Camille T. Taiara

Mayor Gavin Newsom promised to put San Francisco at the forefront of efforts to overcome the digital divide. But today his pledge to implement free wireless Internet access citywide remains unfulfilled. And if he doesn't do something about it quickly, it soon may be too late to make good on his word.

Anyone who's ever had to wait half an hour or more just to log on to the Internet at the local library knows only too well about the demand for free access in this city. Regulars sign up hours ahead of time for coveted, 30-minute slots. But the backup only hints at a bigger problem: a persistent gap in levels of access between low-income San Franciscans and those who can afford computers and monthly Internet service fees.

While many will argue that we face more pressing problems – persistent homelessness, crises in our schools and health care systems – advocates point to the pending convergence between television, telephone, and Internet technologies as a key reason why the digital divide is a problem that needs to be resolved, and soon.

"Technology, particularly information and communications technology, has become so critical to our society that it's really become a determinant between the haves and the have-nots," Laura Efurd, director of policy and leadership at the Community Technology Foundation of California (CTFC), told the Bay Guardian.

It was with this in mind that Newsom last year promised to breach the gap – particularly in the long-neglected southeastern neighborhoods, and despite severe budgetary limitations.

"We will not stop until every San Franciscan has access to free wireless Internet service," he exhorted during his State of the City address last Oct. 21. "No San Franciscan should be without a computer and a broadband connection."

The idea was to install WiFi antennae in key areas of the city that people with the right equipment could use to log on to the Web for free via unlicensed radio waves, and to do whatever else had to be done to ensure that those in need received the hardware and know-how to make use of the service.

Yet to date the city has only erected one WiFi node. The antenna is in Union Square – arguably the city's symbolic core of commercialism and affluence, and a far, far cry from, say, Bayview or the Excelsior. And still no concrete plans exist to bring Newsom's technological utopia to fruition.

"The city doesn't have a line item in the budget for WiFi," Newsom's technological guru Chris Vein, who began working as a senior advisor to the mayor in late November, told us. Instead, several departments are contributing input.

When we spoke with Vein in February, he said he expected to have a comprehensive plan written up by late April. "I was overly optimistic on that one," he said when we spoke to him recently.

In fact, it's been more than nine months since Newsom made his lofty promises, and the city still doesn't so much as know whether it'll be pursuing a municipal network, some sort of public-private partnership, or simply offering a franchise agreement to, say, SBC (which, along with Comcast, already dominates the city's Internet market).

And while Vein assured us that bridging the digital divide remains "central" to his mission, he also said they'll be considering other goals too – namely, "ensuring San Francisco remains competitive in the marketplace."

In his defense, Vein has a lot on his plate at the moment. Under the budget Newsom proposed and signed, the Department of Telecommunications and Information Services lost the equivalent of 37 full-time staffers in 2004 and has been struggling to keep up on various projects ever since. The Telecommunications Commission has been allowed to dissolve (only two commissioners remain – not enough to meet quorum) and hasn't met in more than a year.

Vein took over as interim director of the DTIS just one month ago, after director Lewis Loeven III resigned, and is now overseeing the department's merger, along with the Department of Public Works and others, into the General Services Agency.

"We've been watching the marketplace," he told us, to see how other cities fare with similar projects and to keep an eye on evolving wireless technologies. "We don't want something that's obsolete by the time it's up and running."

Both the CTFC's Efurd and Danny O'Brien, activist coordinator at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, agree that wireless technology has been changing at breakneck speed these days. O'Brien advises that cities may do best by keeping an eye on projects already begun by independent groups to see how well they meet local needs before launching some grandiose plan.

But he also recommends taking some concrete steps soon.

Several bills have been circulating on Capitol Hill recently, as a result of intense lobbying by big telecommunications companies, that seek to limit municipalities' right to erect their own Internet networks. And they include grandfather clauses that would ban cities from pursuing municipal networks not already underway.

"It may be that Newsom's ability to do this will be taken away from him if he doesn't act soon," O'Brien told us.

Going public with plans to implement some sort of city-sponsored wireless Internet project and then dragging one's feet is "like sticking a stick in the bees' nest of incumbent telecom companies and then not reacting."

E-mail Camille T. Taiara at camillet{at}sfbg{dot}com.