• 19 AUG 05
    • 0

    San Francisco plans to wireless WiFi

    Newsom seeks aid in getting city online

    By Guy Ashley

    SAN FRANCISCO-Laptop computers and personal digital assistants are as essential as frothy cappuccino in this city, so it only makes sense for San Francisco to launch a bold initiative to make wireless Internet access available from every park bench, office tower and sidewalk cafe.

    But Mayor Gavin Newsom said Tuesday that his TechConnect initiative to transform San Francisco’s 47 square miles into one Wi-Fi “hot zone” is about much more than helping the hordes of professionals and students festooned with hi-tech gadgetry.

    It’s about bringing the opportunities of the Internet to many neighborhoods that still fall outside its grasp.

    “There’s been much talk over the years about eliminating the so-called digital divide, but not a lot of action,” Newsom said. “It’s time to step up and deliver on the promise of providing everyone access to the wealth of information available online and the opportunities that information can help create.”

    Newsom’s office on Tuesday asked the region’s “best and brightest minds” to offer insight on how to bring online capability to every corner of San Francisco without the need for plugging computers into telephone lines or broadband wires. The request is an invitation to private companies to offer their know-how on a project estimated to carry as much as $18 million in start-up costs.

    Newsom said it will also provide an opportunity for the high-tech industry to express concerns about a city-led Wi-Fi effort that are inevitable.

    Indeed, the private telecommunications industry has been cold to San Francisco’s effort, announced by Newsom in January, and to similar initiatives in Philadelphia and other cities bent on blanketing their communities with wireless access points. An industry group warned again on Tuesday that a city-run effort would fall well short of its goal and would leave San Francisco with a technological white elephant that will be expensive to maintain and obsolete in a matter of years.

    “This is not going to heal the digital divide,” said Dave McClure, chief executive of the U.S. Internet Industry Association. “But it very well could break the bank in San Francisco if they jump into this without fully understanding just what it is they’re proposing.”

    McClure said similar efforts in other cities have fallen flat because studies show only about 2 percent of the population is equipped to use Wi-Fi technology. And the maintenance costs of a wide-ranging network would be considerable, he said.

    Newsom said the TechConnect effort is being coupled with several other initiatives to provide low-income residents with the technological means to use the Internet and to tap into wireless access points.

    Earlier this week, the city teamed with Goodwill Industries to give away hundreds of computers and other high-tech equipment to low-income neighborhoods. That effort will continue, Newsom said, as will similar programs to provide training to residents who lack computer know-how.

    The request issued by Newsom’s office on Tuesday triggers a public comment period that runs to Sept. 28, by which time the city should understand better whether the TechConnect should be a city-only venture, or a public-private partnership in which the Bay Area’s pioneering high-tech industry will play a meaningful role in transforming San Francisco into a Wi-Fi hub.

    “We will keep an open mind as far as what this will look like,” he said. “But to those who would challenge us in this effort I say bring it on.”

    The TechConnect initiative comes on the heals of a flurry of similar, more localized efforts to provide wireless access to San Franciscans. Wi-Fi hot zones have sprung up across the city, including an effort in May in which a Silicon Valley company created wireless access zones in broad swaths of the city’s Fillmore and Castro neighborhoods.

    But the city has continued to push for broader access, and recently conducted a feasibility study that sketched several scenarios of how to make good on Newsom’s promise.

    Chris Vein, executive director of San Francisco’s telecommunications department, said one approach would be to equip light poles, stop lights and elevated structures across San Francisco with small wireless antennas that would enable residents to access wireless connections.

    Vein said recent estimates suggest more than 2,000 of these antennas would be needed to achieve the city’s goal.

    But other technologies are emerging that could change this scenario, and Newsom admitted this makes the city’s position tricky.

    Ideally, he said, private industry will partner with the city on the project, which would help keep the city’s program running on the latest technologies and protect San Francisco should infrastructure pieced together this year become obsolete.

    But he said the city was ready to move ahead on its own should private industry balk at his invitation to participate. Newsom said he believed the Wi-Fi project could be completed within a year.

    “We either are going to find a partner or we’re going to write a big check,” he said.

    Reach Guy Ashley at 510-763-8045 or gashley@cctimes.com.

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