Ken Garcia: City officials should dial into Wi-Fi deal, hang up on politics 

With the much-anticipated announcement Friday that San Francisco has signed on with two Internet giants to provide free wireless service throughout The City, we can come to only one inescapable conclusion: Don’t hold your breath.

Despite the high-profile pronouncement that San Francisco is about the cross the digital divide, reality suggests that the wireless network that is designed to cover the 47 square miles of political wackiness isn’t going to fill the local airwaves anytime soon. Newsom had hoped to have the deal announced by year’s end, a sort of tech trigger for this year’s mayoral campaign. But that is exactly why the Board of Supervisors will probably drag their heels on an agreement — since a majority of its members would sooner paint the Golden Gate Bridge blue than give the mayor praise for his plan to make San Francisco the first big city to provide free Internet service to the masses.

Yet this is a case that begs for detailed analysis, because at first glance the four-year deal that will allow EarthLink and Google to start building the network appears to hardly be the technological Shangri-la it has been pitched as.

For starters, The City will only get about 5 percent of the subscription revenue, an amount estimated to be worth about $300,000 annually. And EarthLink will only pay San Francisco a little more than $1 million for The City’s right of way and a small amount to place antennas on light poles. That does not seem to be a significant sum for two Internet companies that would probably get that much in free advertising just for making San Francisco the first big wireless municipality.

And as with most things related to advertising, it pays to read the fine print on the agreement. The "free’’ wireless service will hardly be that for anyone who wants to surf the Web at something slightly faster than a wind-up snail. Atlanta-based Earthlink will be charging almost $22 for a subscription that will allow users to search the Web slightly faster than Internet access received through a dial-up modem — not exactly a technology breakthrough for the many city residents who would actually use the service.

Now I realize that no company expects to give away anything for free, but the estimated $17 million it would cost to build and maintain the system is but a pittance for EarthLink (projected 2006 revenues, $1.3 billion), and Google is hoping to subsidize its service through online advertising.And that will go a long way toward explaining why about 250 communities are hoping to deploy Wi-Fi services, but for a variety of reasons, including cost, have yet to do so.

The details are certain to be haggled over by the Board of Supervisors and The City’s Public Utilities Commission, which both must approve the plan. But it’s the politics that will threaten to block the airwaves in this deal because of the animus toward Newsom and his administration and the fact that the anti-corporate sentiment among the most ideological board members would echo over the involvement of any network giants.

And one could easily predict that since the system must be tested for its effectiveness during construction that there will be an outcry over which neighborhoods will get it first — even though it probably makes sense to place it in areas which would have a high concentration of Internet use. Is there a Wi-Fi justice group in existence yet? In San Francisco it’s probably only a matter of time — and there’s little doubt that someone will argue that the 3,200 low-income residents who will be eligible to get the service for half-price is too small a number.

Still, given that it took seven months of gritty negotiations to come up with the agreement, it would be foolhardy for any special interest group to try to torpedo it. Unnecessary delays will only drive up costs, and the faster San Francisco gets the wireless network set up, the faster we’ll find out how well it will work and how many people might use it. In other cities, subscriptions haven’t been very hearty because the networks suffered from spotty performance.

But the idea for a universal wireless network is a good one, even if it means some major tweaking of the proposed agreement. Newsom was right to push San Francisco forward as a cutting-edge technological center, and city leaders shouldn’t lose the lead on municipal Wi-Fi services to major cities such as Chicago and Philadelphiathat are pursuing similar projects.

It’s a deal that should be fairly scrutinized, but not overly politicized — a model city officials rarely dial into.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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