Tech disconnect

Newsom looks to secretive, for-profit corporations to deliver his populist promise of free wireless Internet for all

By Camille T. Taiara and Matthew Hirsch


Any day now, Mayor Gavin Newsom is expected to publicize the next step in TechConnect, his ambitious plan to bring cheap, maybe even free, broadband wireless Internet access to the masses – "anywhere, anytime."

If done right, TechConnect could break the stranglehold that SBC and Comcast have on local telecommunications services and the people who use them. And it could finally provide everyone with the means and skills to reap the benefits of an increasingly high-tech world.

That was the selling point Newsom used when he first went public with the idea at his State of the City address over a year ago: Not only would all San Franciscans have free Internet access within a year, but the mayor also pledged to take his WiFi plan a step further and bridge the ubiquitous digital divide once and for all – a task that entails providing not only connectivity but the necessary computer equipment, training, and relevant content. And he was going to do it all at no cost to the city.

"San Francisco is at a crossroads," Sascha Meinrath, cofounder and project coordinator for the Champagne-Urbana Community Wireless Network and spectrum policy analyst for Free Press, told the Bay Guardian. "A lot of people are looking to see what San Francisco is going to do."

But for a long time, the Newsom administration did little to make good on his promise, which was always more of a vague goal than a concrete plan for achieving it. Now it is scrambling to get it done.

There was no word from the city as to the project's status until Aug. 16, when officials announced issuance of a Request for Information and Comments. Little more than a month later, Chris Vein, the mayor's top point person for TechConnect, said they'd have the network up and running by the end of March.

With the city under pressure to produce results fast – and with no public funds to spend – even avid supporters are worried Newsom might hand a vital public interest resource over to some Silicon Valley tech company, giving a for-profit corporation a modernized monopoly over the city's communications – and, in the process, sabotaging more innovative, democratic applications.

 

'Proprietary' information

Newsom's RFIC gave interested parties 45 days to send in their comments. The document says the system must be universal and affordable, support fixed and portable uses, allow access to competing commercial and institutional service providers, and protect consumer privacy and choice. It also requires "a plan for protecting the Network from the effects of obsolescence."

Newsom's staff has since been sifting through more than two dozen proposals from top tech companies, including Google, Earthlink, and Cingular Wireless. But they're keeping many of the crucial details under wraps.

Google submitted a 100-page proposal to provide free WiFi throughout the city – but has claimed 92 percent of the document consists of proprietary information not to be released to the public. And the city isn't challenging them on it. AnchorFree, the company that erected free WiFi nodes in Union Square and four other high-income areas of the city, won't allow anyone but the mayor and his staff to see a single word of its plan.

Department of Telecommunications and Information Services administrator Ron Vinson told the Bay Guardian that the city attorney is looking into the legality of keeping AnchorFree's entire proposal secret. Beyond that, "either we're going to argue about what's proprietary or we're going to get [the WiFi project] done," he said.

Indeed, telecom giants have been lobbying hard on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in the nation to undermine local municipalities' right to create their own wireless networks, creating some of the urgency city officials now seem to be feeling.

Calls to Newsom spokesperson Peter Ragone were not returned by press time.

The process so far leaves many important questions unanswered: What do these companies expect to get from the deal? How will they use their privileged access to local consumers? What's considered "affordable"? And in a few years, when telephone and television services merge onto the Internet, will they be offered at affordable rates too?

And perhaps most crucially: How do they intend to deal with the digital-divide issues at the core of why Newsom says he's interested in WiFi to begin with?

Finally, will TechConnect be run as a municipal utility, as a joint public-private system, or as an entirely private, for-profit venture? And will the city, in its rush to the finish line, simply negotiate a contract with one or more of the private companies that submitted proposals?

 

Virtual land grab

Kimo Crossman, a local software developer and avid WiFi supporter, estimates he's e-mailed city bureaucrats at least 100 times over the past three months in an effort to wrench information from them.

"Do we want to have some kind of social input on it, or do we want to let companies get away with what's basically a virtual land-grab?" he asked.

Crossman's not alone. Responses to the city's RFIC include more than 150 comments from individuals and community organizations, and many of them press for a formal public process so that San Franciscans might help shape the network and what it can do – not simply accept whatever plan a corporate sponsor is willing to provide.

Media Alliance, a small nonprofit that's recently made TechConnect its top priority, has played a pivotal role in generating the public response the city has received so far. They would like to see the city implement something along the lines of the community needs assessment it's required to conduct before choosing a vendor for the city's cable franchise.

Under federal law, cities must actively reach out to various sectors of the community, holding public meetings and gathering input on which to base their demands for what public benefits a cable company must provide in return for the right of way to string its lines along public utility poles and under city streets.

Or the city "could utilize some of the mechanisms they use for other types of outreach," such as when generating economic development plans, Laura Efurd of the Community Technology Foundation of California told us. "A system like this will not work without community input."

Emy Tseng, senior policy advisor at the foundation, currently sits on the city's TechConnect RFIC Review Panel. Other than that, the board is stacked with city and industry representatives.

In addition to a series of strategically planned, well-publicized public hearings, Media Alliance and CTFC are calling on the city to create a community advisory council with real decision-making power.

"In the past corporations have had a bad track record on addressing digital divide issues," explained Tim Pozar, cofounder of the Bay Area Wireless Users Group, which has long been rebelling against the big telecommunications companies by setting up free WiFi nodes in different parts of the city.

Comcast and SBC still haven't even wired predominantly low-income sections of southeastern San Francisco for high-speed Internet. Setting up a citywide network and "bringing down the cost of Internet access would overcome a huge hurdle," Efurd said. "But there are other concerns too."

 

Innovation or balkanization?

Media democracy advocates worry that Newsom is taking a backward approach to reaching his stated goals. The city must figure out what the community wants TechConnect to do before it can determine how the network should be built.

"Wireless is just one medium out there," Pozar said by way of example. Fiber-optic cable performs better than WiFi for video streaming, he explained. That would be an important consideration if, say, San Francisco's public access TV stations wanted to use the network to reach residents who don't subscribe to cable, or if they chose to broadcast Board of Supervisors' meetings so that people could watch them from their work desks.

Indeed, San Franciscans shouldn't be limited to using the network only to receive content, they say.

"We've the opportunity to not just provide Internet service, but to provide LAN [local area network] services and applications – streaming audio, streaming video, live chat rooms – directly," Meinrath said. "Cities that just deploy Internet services, five years from now are really going to be kicking themselves because they will have deployed a system that quickly becomes a dinosaur. The peer-to-peer services are what are really growing.... If you build an architecture that doesn't support that, you've built an incredibly inefficient architecture."

The very fact that the companies hoping to erect TechConnect are claiming proprietary protections from public scrutiny is an ominous clue for Meinrath and his peers.

The Internet itself offers an example of what's possible. Because its underlying source code is open, Meinrath notes, "anyone could develop applications on top of that. Anyone could try out new things and innovate new ideas on this neutral medium. In wireless we're going in exactly the opposite direction. We're making it all closed and proprietary. It completely retards innovation in this arena. Because if I develop something using brand X's system, it might not work on brand Y. And that's very problematic. We're basically balkanizing the wireless medium.

"Long-term, if you really want to have a social and economic justice component to this, you're going to need to change the very infrastructure of how people access and disseminate information," Meinrath said. "San Francisco could be the one that started everything. The big question is: Will it?"

E-mail Camille T. Taiara at camille@sfbg.com. E-mail Matthew Hirsch at matthew@sfbg.com.