New bid to close ‘digital divide’ 

San Francisco is on pace to offer a free wireless Internet network in two years but a faster and superior technology may come on its heels that could better close the so-called digital divide.

Supervisor Tom Ammiano has emerged as a strong proponent of a citywide "fiber network" that would allow people access to the Internet at speeds tens or even hundreds of times faster than existing digital subscriber line, or DSL, cable modem speeds and wireless, or Wi-Fi, Internet speeds.

A report, initiated by Ammiano, says The City could connect every home and every business to what is known as a fiber-to-the-premises, or FTTP network, for a whooping $560 million. It entails laying fiber-optic cables underground and connections to the homes or businesses. No other city of this size has attempted this feat in the United States but some European cities, such as Amsterdam, have undertaken similar projects.

While costly, Ammiano said The City could eventually make its money back through leasing the network to private providers.

The report came out one day after Mayor Gavin Newsom’s high-profile agreement with Earthlink and Google to setup a free citywide Wi-Fi network was submitted to the Board of Supervisors for approval. If approved, the agreement would result in a paid-for Wi-Fi service and a free slower Wi-Fi service.

Ammiano said the fiber network is not meant to compete or undermine the Wi-Fi agreement, but he did say the fiber network would truly close the digital divide while the Wi-Fi would not since it is an "iffy" service and may be hard for some people to draw the signal into their homes, particularly in low-income neighborhoods.

Building out a full fiber network would take up to 15 years, according to the report.

Chris Vein, head of The City’s Department of Telecommunications and Information Services, who negotiated the Wi-Fi deal, acknowledged fiber is a superior technology, but its drawback is that it costs more and takes longer to set up, whereas Wi-Fi is cheaper and quicker to set up.

The report recommends implementing a fiber network in phases. For example, to create a fiber network for 250 city sites it would cost $12.5 million, according to the report.

jsabatini@examiner.com

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