Low-fi wi-fi

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By Tim Redmond

Quite the hearing yesterday on the mayor's wi-fi plan. Newsom has a lot riding on this, and he got out his troops to insist that even slow wi-fi is better than no wi-fi in addressing the digital divide.

I have a real problem with turning over a crucial part of the city's future infrastructure to private companies. But I think it's also worth noting that this probably won't be any effective answer to the digital divide. Sasha at LeftinSF quotes a fascinating Business Week article showing that in Anaheim, the much-touted wi-fi system doesn't work very well at all. In a lot of palces, you can't get any signal.

Listen: I love wi-fi. My whole house is abuzz with a wireless cloud, thanks to a cable modem and few hundred dollars worth of routers, repeaters and cables. The internal wi-fi card that came with my Toshiba laptop didn't satisfy me, so I went out and bought a fancy external one. And still, I can't always sit on my couch and watch golf on TV while I read my email. Sometimes, the reception is slow and spotty.

San Francisco International Airport is supposedly set up for wi-fi everwhere; it's a T-Mobile system with a high-speed connection that costs $6 an hour. It's a far higher quality product than what Google/Earthlink is offering San Francisco -- and at lest 50 percent of the time, I can't get it to work.

Now imagine the low-income person in the Tenderloin or in Hunters Point public housing with a cheap laptop that has a cheap internal wi-fi card. If this person is, say, a student looking to do homework in his or her bedroom, and that bedroom is more than 10 or 20 feet from the street, and the walls are concrete or brick (hello?) then the free wi-fi, which is already way slow, isn't going to work at all.

You want reliable universal broadband, the way to do it is run fiber under the streets.

Here's who Newsom's plan will work well for: Business people and the cafe crowd who want to sit on park benches in Union Square or at a table outside a Starbucks and surf the net. They'll also be able to pay the money for a faster connection.

And let's remember: These are Gavin Newsom's real constituents.