SF’s five-year technology plan silent on achieving public broadband 

click to enlarge The City has not been able to figure out a way to provide places like the Mission Neighborhood Center a public Internet service. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • The City has not been able to figure out a way to provide places like the Mission Neighborhood Center a public Internet service.

San Francisco might have a comprehensive new technology plan, but it lacks direction on at least one major component.

Many large cities struggle with how to provide a municipal Internet service to residents in order to close the digital divide. San Francisco is no stranger to the issue. Yet, The City's five-year technology plan is silent on how to solve the dilemma.

Instead, the plan leaves San Francisco with the question: Should The City provide universal public broadband?

Jay Nath, the chief innovation officer for Mayor Ed Lee, said the tech plan is the first step in that conversation.

"I can't speak to historically," Nath said in reference to previous efforts. "This is not something that any [large] city has solved. There isn't any example to point to, any large city. There is no blueprint to say this is doable."

The plan does, however, signal the importance of solving the dilemma. As more public services migrate online, The City "must also help residents and visitors obtain Internet access without obstacle."

And while San Francisco expands its free Wi-Fi service, "broadband in public spaces does not replace broadband to the home, and the City must evaluate its role in helping San Franciscans out of the Digital Divide as well as improving San Francisco's standing among world-class cities," the plan says.

When it comes to Internet access, the five-year, $150 million technology plan focuses on building out San Francisco's fiber network and increasing coverage in public spaces of the free wireless network #SFWiFi, not universal broadband.

The lack of comprehensive expansion plans for free Wi-Fi may come as a disappointment after the fanfare last year around the launch of service along 3 miles of Market Street and, using a $608,000 Google gift, in 30 other public places.

Just $1.3 million would be invested into Wi-Fi service expansion for some public housing sites (Sunnydale, Potrero Hill Annex and Potrero Hill Terrace, Hunters View, Alice Griffith), 28 fire stations and the government building at 1 S. Van Ness Ave.

"The plan for #SFWiFi is limited to two years recognizing the limited data and experience our City has with this program," the report said, adding that complications may push completion past two years.

Miguel Gamino, director of the Department of Technology, said #SFWiFi remains the top priority.

"We will continue to be aggressive," he said. "Our plan is a little conservative for the purposes of being responsible."

He noted that "we are actively inviting that public-private partnership opportunity," which could lead to other free wireless areas.

The plan discusses other locations merely under consideration. They include Third Street, The Embarcadero and its piers, Golden Gate Park, the San Francisco Zoo, unnamed residential neighborhoods, Treasure Island and downtown BART-Muni stations.

The City expects to spend $2.4 million to expand its existing 170 miles of fiber network to add 178 public buildings to the 231 already connected. An additional $8 million is earmarked to "fix the network," which includes updating hardware and eliminating points of failure. The effort is intended to improve efficiency and security and decrease costs.

The investment seemingly pays for itself in the long run. The City is spending about $1.3 million annually for Internet services that it could cancel with the upgrades, and it could lease more fiber to private companies or nonprofit organizations. It does so now in a limited way, generating $279,000 annually.

City officials have long talked about closing the digital divide by providing a free or paid Internet service. The absence of such a service is seemingly more glaring as more time goes by and as San Francisco has billed itself as a top technology hub with anchor businesses like Twitter, Airbnb, Google and Zynga.

The private market — there are at least six Internet providers doing business in San Francisco — may bypass poor communities, avoid areas that are geographically challenging to serve and offer costly subscription prices.

While the majority of residents have access to the Internet, those who do not "skews toward low-income families, minorities, the unemployed, youth, the elderly, and those living with disabilities," according to the plans. Sixteen percent of public-school students do not have a computer with a home Internet connection.

The public conversation on broadband is underway. Today, tech advocate Civic Makers is hosting a panel discussion, which is expected to include Nath and Supervisor Mark Farrell, about whether public broadband is feasible in San Francisco.

"We've been pushing for a public broadband network in San Francisco and nationwide. As President [Barack] Obama has recently said, 'Today, high-speed broadband is not a luxury ... it's a necessity.' We agree," the event announcement says.

To date, no plan as serious as the failed effort put forward in 2007 by Earthlink in partnership with Google has materialized. Meanwhile, smaller cities like Chattanooga, Tenn., with 173,000 residents, have launched government-operated networks.

The plan is pending approval by the Board of Supervisors after being introduced by the mayor. It is one element of Lee's overall proposed budget that will be submitted by June 1.

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