City pursues dual — and dueling — solutions to the digital divide
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San Francisco's top officials want to get the city more directly involved in creating a better telecommunications infrastructure. Their goal is to overcome the digital divide and pump up the city's overall bandwidth without waiting for the private sector to maybe get around to it.
But Mayor Gavin Newsom and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors have focused on distinctly different pathways to the whiz-bang future they both envision. And the agency in charge of getting the city there — the Department of Telecommunications and Information Services (DTIS) — has moved the mayor's big idea at high speed while inching the board's plan along at a snail's pace.
Newsom first proposed a citywide wireless Internet system that would be free for the city and its residents during his State of the City speech Oct. 21, 2004. At the time it was just an ambitious promise that seemed to languish, until late last summer when the DTIS issued a request for information to a variety of high-tech firms.
By the end of 2005 the city had settled on trying to negotiate a deal with a partnership between Google and Earthlink to build the system, which they will finance largely with revenue from targeted advertising and users who pay a fee for faster connections. City officials are still in negotiations with Earthlink and expect to have a proposal ready for the board to consider by the end of the year.
Yet three weeks before Newsom announced his intention to pursue wireless, Sup. Tom Ammiano and a coalition of public interest nonprofits announced a plan to have the city build and run a municipal broadband system by laying fiber-optic lines as city officials open up the streets for the planned sewer system replacement and other projects.
It was an ambitious idea never realized by a big city in the United States, one that would put tremendous bandwidth directly under city control and be a potential source of millions of dollars in annual revenue and cost savings.
Now, almost two years after the Board of Supervisors ordered a study on the plan, the DTIS has finally hired consultants — the Maryland-based Columbia Telecommunications Corp. (CTC), which works exclusively on fiber-optic projects for public agencies. The first draft of the plan is expected to be available for public comment by the end of the year.
"We consider both the wireless and fiber projects to be important," Brian Roberts, the DTIS senior policy analyst for both projects, told the Guardian. "But we thought wireless would be something that could be accomplished in a relatively short timeline."
Roberts and others involved in the projects say the two ventures aren't mutually exclusive — that any wireless system would actually get a big technological boost from city-owned fiber, San Franciscans will likely use up whatever bandwidth they can get, and wireless reaches mobile users in a way that fiber can't.
But activists of various stripes have catalogued a number of concerns with Newsom's wireless plan: the secretive nature of the early negotiations, private sector control over the system, the mayor's relationship with the Google founders (who proposed the idea in the first place), the exposure of residents to increasingly sophisticated advertising campaigns, shortcomings in serving the poor and truly breaching the digital divide, and problems associated with wireless technology (mainly involving reliability, health, and capacity concerns).
The fact that these two plans are coming before the Board of Supervisors at the same time — which Roberts said is purely coincidental — is likely to renew the age-old debate about privatization and public interest.
Should the city be pursuing the public-private partnerships favored by Newsom, which can be delivered to voters quickly and at seemingly little cost to government? Or should it be focusing on long-term strategies that will give the city more control over the resources its citizens need — from electricity to information technology — without having to depend on the profit-driven private sector?
The DTIS announced the commencement of the municipal broadband study during a little-noticed public meeting Aug. 15, during which a dozen or so of the most committed activists, representatives for Comcast (which aggressively opposes most municipal broadband initiatives), and downtown building owners heard from the consultants.
CTC founder and principal analyst Joanne Howis outlined the scope of her firm's study and sang the praises of what's known in her industry as Fiber to the Premises (FTTP), noting that it's the most reliable, high-capacity broadband technology and that the price of delivering it to people's homes has fallen tremendously in recent years, to the point where it's the best all-around broadband delivery system.
"Fiber is better, and wholly controlled fiber is better still," she said. "That's an article of faith with us."
Later, activists pushed the point on wireless versus fiber. "Fiber can do many of the things wireless can't do, but it can't go mobile," Howis said, also noting that fiber is essential to a reliable public safety system. "Fiber and wireless speak to different needs and are used in different ways."
But when asked what's better for residential users, she said, "Anyone who can have fiber or wireless to their homes will choose fiber."
"Unless it's free," Roberts interjected.
But public interest media advocates like Media Alliance say the city is going about this backward. The group has been critical of the city's wireless plans and has studied the potential for municipal fiber, arguing in the just-released report "Is Publicly Owned Information Infrastructure a Wise Public Investment for San Francisco?" that the city could pay for its investment within five years and make $2 million per year thereafter by leasing space on the network. So all sides are happy to see the fiber study finally moving forward.
"We met with a lot of resistance to the study, but the good thing was we got the money for the study from the Mayor's Office," Ammiano told the Guardian. "While I'm disappointed that it's taken so long, I'm heartened that it's now moving."
Meanwhile, Google last week got a free citywide wireless system up and running in its native Mountain View. The system is faster than the free service it intends to offer to San Franciscans, who will have to pay a bit more if they want anything faster than the targeted average speed of 300 kilobytes per second.
"Google is putting up a lot of money to make the service free in San Francisco," Chris Sacca, who is heading up the project for Google, told the Guardian. He estimated that the company has spent over $1 million to develop the San Francisco plan.
While the fiber study will analyze the benefits to the city itself, Sacca said the wireless proposal began with consumer demand. "At Google we start with the end-user problem, then work backward from there." SFBG