WiFi: Who's in control?

Supes wary of backroom deal on Newsom's Internet-access program

By Camille T. Taiara

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who chairs the Local Agency Formation Commission, had a stern warning Dec. 16 for Chris Vein, point person on Mayor Gavin Newsom's ambitious project to provide free or affordable wireless broadband to all residents at no cost to the city:

"We don't want to be faced with a do-or-die, Comcast-like vote," Mirkarimi said at a LAFCo hearing. Nor, he said, does he want "a vendor-driven contract where we're negotiating for the tidbits."

It was a dramatic demonstration of the issues critics are raising about the mayor's plan, known as TechConnect, and it underscored the deep disconnect between the Mayor's Office and community activists over a landmark program that could shape city communications for decades.

Mirkarimi favors creating a municipal network that places public needs before private profits. Yet the city hasn't been making a good faith effort to look into that option, he argued.

Mirkarimi and his LAFCo colleagues had summoned Vein, interim director of the city's Department of Telecommunications and Information Services (DTIS), to address concerns that the mayor and his staff have been too secretive in their formulation of TechConnect – and may be gearing up to hand the project over to Google or some other private high-tech firm.

There's a precedent here: Earlier this year, the DTIS negotiated a deal behind closed doors that extended Comcast's cable franchise with the city for another four years, effectively cutting off a rare and important opportunity for public input on the deal. The mayor and the city attorney strong-armed the Board of Supervisors into accepting the pact. (See "The Comcast Cliffhanger," 9/21/05.)

Almost everyone agrees that the essence of the mayor's plan is a good thing. By connecting the entire city through wireless technology that could provide cheaper alternatives to traditional telephone and cable systems and could be accessed from virtually anywhere, TechConnect could have a lasting impact on underserved communities and the local economy.

But so far Newsom seems to be leaning heavily toward a private-sector solution. A leaked confidential draft request for proposals (RFP) calls for proposals from entities prepared to design, deploy, operate, maintain, and upgrade the network.

Newsom still hasn't explained how a company might build, operate, and maintain a citywide wireless network with no public funds – and what city residents would give up in exchange.

Publicly released summaries of proposals submitted by Google, Earthlink, and others provide some clues. The proposals talk of offering premium services for a fee, and of "monetizing" the Web through advertising and use of the TechConnect logo.

There's money to be made: Internet ad revenues peaked at $3.1 billion during the third quarter of this year, according to stats released last month by the Interactive Advertising Bureau and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

A lot of the advertising is carefully targeted – Google, for example, directs ads to users based on the words in their search requests.

The kind of access a citywide wireless Internet provider would have to data on San Franciscans' online communications and transactions "is worth way more" than the cost of erecting and operating a wireless network," Chris Hoofnagle, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the Bay Guardian.

EPIC, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the American Civil Liberties Union submitted a formal comment calling on the city to establish strict privacy parameters for TechConnect, but those parameters were not reflected in the leaked draft RFP.

Privacy is just one of many critical issues that remain unaddressed as the city finalizes its RFP.

Community activists say there's still no formal game plan for bridging the digital divide – that is, for bringing Internet access to low-income populations. There's no baseline definition of what the city expects a vendor to provide as part of its free basic service – and with peer-to-peer applications like VOIP and video streaming representing the future of the Internet, any service that fails to provide enough speed and capacity to support such applications will quickly become obsolete.

Internet for Everyone, a grassroots coalition including Media Alliance, One Economy, Caminos Pathway Learning Center, and others, is asking the city to create a Digital Inclusion Community Advisory Board to help "identify the needs of underserved communities, and to make policy and funding recommendations." They're also asking for a Digital Inclusion Fund, to be spent locally.

On the more technical side, the city is requiring open access to the TechConnect network but hasn't defined what that means. Will the system allow people to share files and communicate directly and for free, rather than through a centralized, fee-based data choke point? Will the underlying software be proprietary rather than open source and thereby lack the flexibility to incorporate the latest technological innovations? What kinds of services will independent providers be allowed to offer over the network, and at what cost to the provider?

"I don't think they have the technical expertise to work that out, or they haven't thought about it," said Tim Pozar, of the Bay Area Wireless User Group, who worries the city may be handing over an important chunk of the spectrum to a private company and creating another monopoly.

Nor has there been any mention of oversight mechanisms.

"You just need to look at historical precedents" to know that private companies are likely to abuse their market power when granted control over a local utility, Sascha Meinrath, spectrum policy analyst for Free Press and an expert in community-oriented wireless networks, told us.

The Mayor's Office insists there's plenty of time to negotiate the details. "You don't want to play all your cards up front," the DTIS's Ron Vinson said at a Dec. 15 TechConnect community meeting, in response to concerns that these issues and others hadn't been worked out yet. "We could be limiting ourselves by setting standards on our demands up front. We want to see what they offer us first."

But the various advocates we spoke to for this piece all thought that was a backward way to work.

"Given we're talking about delivering the entire city of San Francisco, it doesn't make sense to start negotiating with companies to find out what's the best of the lot," Meinrath said. "The city should be driving what it demands if it is going to give out a virtual monopoly."

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