The War on WiFi

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By Sarah Phelan

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Mayor Gavin Newsom’s tactics to push through a Google Earthlink Wifi franchise are beginning to look a lot like Bush’s efforts to invade Iraq: only this time the invasion is of Internet privacy, the big lie is that the Google Earthlink deal will bridge the digital divide, and critics of the deal are being smeared as racists.

Nothing of course could be further from the truth behind why the Board has been questioning Newsom's Google-Earthlink deal for years, but trying getting that message through when the Mayor’s PR machine is set on a deafening pre-election spin cycle of false messaging.

Still, this is San Francisco, and there’s a good chance people will see through the smoke and mirrors and get to the real point which is this: every member of the Board of Supervisors wants to bridge the digital divide, but some have good reason to believe that the deal, as it currently stands, won’t fulfill that promise. Especially since the Board has not been getting straight answers from the Mayor’s Office about this proposal for the past two years. Instead, all they've gotten from Team Newsom have been roadblocks in the path of reviewing other technologies, such as fiber, and other operating models, such as a municipally-owned wifi system.

So, why is the Newsom-Google-Earthlink faction in such a big rush? Presumably, the Newsom camp hopes that it's going to be too complicated to debunk the lies and distortions that lurk behind the mayor's simplistic ‘Wifi Now” message. (Another tactic that Bush and Cheney have exploited ad finitum in the war on Iraq). Any one who dares to raise any objections will be labeled as "racist," since minorities are the ones with the least access to computer technology, and opposition from anyone hoping to run against Newsom as Mayor this fall will be tantamount to committing political suicide. Or will it?

In reality, the current debate over WiFi is a great opportunity to get a way better deal for San Francisco—and a true leader surely has the best interests of the neediest citizens in the community in mind, right?

During yesterday’s hearing by a Board of Supervisors committee, Sup. Ross Mirkarimi played the role of statesman so well that onlookers couldn’t help thinking, wow, Ross (is it OK if we call you Ross?) would make a really great Mayor.

Mirkarimi began by reiterating his support for WiFi--“Look, I’m in favor of WiFi," the Mirksta said--before getting to his critique of the current Google Earthlink proposal.
"It just really bothers me that this is being sold to us as bridging the digital divide and that we don’t have a backup plan if the free service cannot get to some people," Mirkarimi said. "I don’t think the city should have to pay for the hardware. We also need to get more computers in people’s hands.”

Mirkarimi demanded that an honest discussion take place about whether universal free wifi is really possible in a hilly, built-out city full of tall dense concrete buildings—and asked whether an alternative solution--such as free DSL--was being proposed for those who’d be left out in the digital cold.
“And how do you get equipment into the hands of the community that needs it the most?” he asked, touching on the need for computer training and technical support (phone support will only be available to Google-Earthlink’s paying customers) and asking for an investigation as to whether Mountain View is really getting 1,000 kbps for free, and if so why San Francisco is only being offered 300 kbps. Mirkarimi also demanded that Google-Earthlink deal makers address the ACLU's concerns that people’s privacy and security could be compromised under this proposal.

Budget Committee chair Sup. Chris Daly also showed that he has what it takes to be mayor, thanks in part to the enormous anti-Daly offensive that Newsom's reelection campaign is waging and that has all the signs of a replay of the dirty tactics aimed at Daly during the November 2006 election. That time around, huge wads of cash were squandered in an unsuccessful effort to make Daly look like a shit in his own district. But this latest effort, which uses Newsom's reelection campaign website to drum up public support for the Google-Earthlink deal, while trashing Daly, also reveals that the Mayor fears that Chris (is it OK if we call you Chris?) may be considering a run for mayor. I mean, why else draw so much attention to one member of the Board, unless you actually believe the lie that everyone hates Daly , and hope that by repeating such B.S, more people will be fooled.

But perhaps the Mayor's Daly-negative strategy is already backfiring. Witness Sup. Bevan Dufty's decision to join Daly and Mirkarimi in voting to have the full Board take up the WiFi issue on July 11. Dufty's vote came after Newsom ally Sup. Sean Elsbernd tried to rush the Google Earthlink proposal before the Board on May 29, and after Dufty made a point of acknowledging Daly's great leadership on the Budget committee and Daly's commitment to helping seniors, minorites and low-income folks in general as evidenced by Daly's $28 million affordable housing supplemental, which Newsom (in his latest chicken dance move) has refused to sign, but has not dared to veto. Yup, implying that Daly is racist and anti-poor people is akin to Bush smearing Kerry's war record. Only this time, San Franciscans will surely be smart enough to see through the Swift boating of Daly's opposition to the Google-Earthlink giveaway.

Other sit-up-in-your-chair-and think-about it- points that emerged from yesterday’s discussion of Newsom’s proposed deal included the reality that the speed of Google-Earthlink's basic free service is only 300 kbps. To get faster service—the kind that lets you download videos, upload pictures and listen to music—you’d have to pay $22 a month, which includes a free CPE (customer premise equipment), which normally would set you back between $50 and $200 bucks. In other words, by being able to afford $264 a year, people who already have laptops and technical knowhow will be able to get a piece of free equipment, along with tech support and highly competitive speed. Meanwhile, folks who don't even have a secondhand computer, would be expected to shell out for equipment, won't be able to phone anyone for tech support and won't have competitive speed. Hmm. Another interesting gem amid all the paperwork: The Controller’s Office notes that only 1 percent of homes that already have a computer don’t have Internet access. In other words, giving access without equipment or phone service or training will have a very limited impact on the digital divide.

The city will only get 5 percent of the gross revenues of all funding to Earthlink—and this narrow slice of the pie is the only funding set aside for the City’s Digital Inclusion Program, which is supposed to supply the digitally disadvantaged with computers, technical support and computer literacy training city wide.

Earthlink is pushing for a 4 year deal with the opportunity to renew 3 times--in other words, for a 16-year franchise. Mirkarimi would like to amend that deal so the City would only have to commit to Earthlink for 2 more years, after the first 4-year cycle.

In other words, there is a whole lot about Newsom's deal that could use improving, a whole lot more that could use dumping--and a whole other world in which the Board forges a way more equitable WiFi future for San Francisco.