S.F. should not rush free Wi-Fi deal 

Entrepreneurs know that a quality business plan is the road map to success. If you want to start a business, you must know about the industry that your business is in. Not only does a businessperson assess her own competitive advantages, but she must also consider her competition. This includes the ability to satisfy customer needs, the competition’s track record, whether there are high investment costs, changing technology, the time it takes to set up a business, to name a few. This is considered sound business planning and development.

San Francisco, as a municipality, needs to take the same approach to secure citywide Wi-Fi. The Department of Telecommunications and Information Services (DTIS) at the direction of Mayor Gavin Newsom, chose the EarthLink/Google proposal without considering the full scope of available technology and the fiscal feasibility of having wireless broadband. As a result, the mayor and DTIS failed to consider The City’s capacity to provide wireless broadband, how a private entity could improve The City’s current system and the best practices of other jurisdictions.

Given this serious deficiency, I requested a Board of Supervisors’ Budget Analyst’s report in order to have a comprehensive set of choices to offer universal broadband access to San Franciscans. The Budget Analyst report recommended that The City look into various business models and that this variety "would encourage creativity and innovation," allowing The City to choose the best proposal for its financial needs.

Why rush into such a large sole-source contract without considering all of the facts and viable options, especially offering service that is neither totally free nor universally accessible as is being promoted by the mayor and by EarthLink/Google? Rushing into a contract with EarthLink/Google is akin to shopping while hungry. Anything looks good and anything will do.

What about getting the best coverage and the best technology? We also need a plan that offers consumer choice and variety, while protecting our privacy rights. This requires long-term vision and commitment rather than a quick fix. When delivering citywide Wi-Fi, there are a number of options including a municipally-owned and -operated model as well as different permutations of public-private partnerships that are healthy for both sectors and not just one or two companies. The City can develop a build-out plan that includes fiber, the most reliable source of broadband. There is little money in the proposal for "digital inclusion" from EarthLink/Google, which would make WiFi accessible to low-income San Franciscans. The "free WiFi" that is being touted as a sizzle selling point may easily be provided by a municipally owned enterprise. We can also foresee keeping rates cheaper because The City will have no need to pursue profits. Our only goal is to provide for a vital need, like water.

There is more knowledge in this city about information systems and technology than in other technical areas such as water delivery and wastewater treatment. We have local talent to draw from. Our local experts know how to connect to the Internet. They know different data systems and how to network.

If we fail to ask the hard questions, we will give away the store. In this case, the store is the exclusive right to public infrastructure, including light poles and public rights of way. Not only does this provide EarthLink/Google with a competitive advantage but it potentially grants them a monopoly.

When The City selects one company to take over our public assets to provide service, the only guarantee is that the provider will dictate the quality and cost of service. The consumers lose. Government loses its governance. And taxpayers are subsidizing EarthLink/Google’s businesses by paying for its infrastructure while being charged for their services. EarthLink/Google should not reap the benefits of the public’s use without giving much in return.

When a hollow proposal is put forward, our technical experts are asking the necessary questions. The naysayers are the ones who refuse to ask the hard factual questions and who refuse to select among the viable options, the best plan for San Francisco. Their myopic vision could push San Francisco into a losing proposition with EarthLink/Google.

Jake McGoldrick is supervisor for San Francisco's First District.

To read the latest news about free Internet access in San Francisco, go to the Wi-Fi Deal page.

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