Some residents need hardware for free Wi-Fi 

An initiative championed by Mayor Gavin Newsom to offer free universal wireless Internet access would have an associated equipment cost for an estimated one-third of San Francisco households, and is built upon a premise that up to 15 percent of residents who want speedier service will be willing to pay for it.

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors will get its first official look Tuesday at a contract for free citywide wireless Internet service through Google and EarthLink; negotiations between The City and the two Internet giants, who partnered together for the project, have been ongoing for nearly a year.

Under the contract, EarthLink would assume the costs of building and maintaining the wireless network, estimated at approximately $15 million over the next decade.

Google will create a free service that will be offered to residents that will operate at about 300 kilobits per second.

A faster, one megabit-per-second service would be offered through EarthLink for about $21 per month — one of the main ways the company expects to recover its investment.

San Francisco’s contract is similar to other public-private contracts currently being negotiated for municipal wireless service, said Wi-Fi expert Glenn Fleishman, a freelance journalist, who said the free service under the contract, although not fast, is six times the speed of dial-up.

"For people who are paying for dial-up, or for those who weren’t online before, 300 kilobits is probably fine," Fleishman said. "If you have DSL today, then it’s unacceptably slow."

The City was never attempting to create a free wireless network for the top-end user, said Chris Vein, director of The City’s technology office, but rather one that was functional and would be available to low-income families in order to close what’s known as the digital divide.

"It’s fast enough for users to perform most Internet tasks: e-mail, Web browsing, streaming video and even using VoIP [Voice over Internet Protocol] technology," Vein said.

For those more tech savvy, the big benefit of The City’s wireless system is the ability to go anywhere outside — particularly useful for handheld devices — and get free service.

Less mentioned is the fact that the wireless system will have difficulty penetrating one-third or more of San Francisco homes, which means residents will have to purchase a piece of equipment that’s known as a "bridge" — estimated to cost between $50 to $100 — in order to access the wireless network indoors.

In other cities where EarthLink is building a municipal wireless network, including Anaheim and Philadelphia, about 30 percent to 35 percent of homes need to have a bridge, according to Don Berryman, president of municipal networks for EarthLink.

Paid subscribers will get a free bridge, if they sign up for an extended contract, Berryman said.

Through a 5 percent revenue sharing agreement written into the contract, San Francisco will offer some low-income residents free or affordable bridges, as well as computers, said Vein, who added that the exact details of how the subsidized equipment would be distributed was still in the works.

Critics of the citywide Wi-Fi plan — including several members of the Board of Supervisors — have argued that The City didn’t get the best deal from Google and EarthLink and have suggested that a city-owned network would better serve the public interest.

A recent study conducted by the Board of Supervisors’ Budget Analyst has also suggestedthat The City might consider seeking out a partnership with a nonprofit Internet provider, in addition to confirming the feasibility of a public Wi-Fi system.

Newsom has championed the private-public partnership as the best path for bringing cutting-edge Wi-Fi technology to San Francisco.

The Plan at a glance

How San Francisco’s Google/EarthLink Wi-Fi deal compares in price and speed with other high-speed Internet providers in The City

» S.F.’s proposed universal wireless service through Google free 300 Kbps

» S.F.’s proposed paid wireless service through EarthLink $21.95/month 1 Mbps

» AT&T/Yahoo broadband residential "Basic" service* $14.99/month 768 Kbps

» AT&T/Yahoo broadband residential "Express" service* $19.99/month 1.5 Mbps

» Comcast broadband residential service (non-cable customers)* $59.95/month 6 Mbps

* Price comparisons found on each provider's Web site for San Francisco residential service

E-mail Bonnie Eslinger at beslinger@examiner.com.

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