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EarthLink, Google are Top Pick to Unwire San Francisco

After a six-week review of proposals, the five-member TechConnect Committee planning the future of citywide wireless for the city of San Francisco last night picked the partnership of EarthLink and Google as their top choice to install and manage the network.

While they are the top pick, this is not yet a signed deal. There are issues yet to be hammered out, though Bill Tolpegin, Vice President of Development and Planning in EarthLink's Municipal Networks Unit, says the proposal they gave was a "pretty comprehensive solution... but now we can answer exact questions" from the committee and city council.

In a statement issued last night, EarthLink's President of the Municipal Networks Unit, Donald Berryman, said, "We look forward to taking the next step to negotiate a contract to build a municipal wireless broadband network... [and] to getting started in building a solution that will bring the incredible possibilities to reality."

If the city can't come to terms with EarthLink, the city's Department of Telecommunications and Information Services (DTIS) can terminate the negotiations and move on to the next highest ranked proposal. That would be MetroFi next, followed by the SF Metro Connect consortium in third place.

The network proposed by EarthLink will be built in partnership with Google, using equipment from Motorola for backhaul and from Tropos Networks for mesh/client connections. Motorola also provides the personnel to install all the hardware. Cost of deployment is expected to reach between $8 and $10 million. Taxpayers would contribute nothing —it's all out of Google's and EarthLink's pockets.

Google also supports a muni network in its hometown of Mountain View, California, south of San Francisco. Despite rumors of plans to build a nationwide Wi-Fi network, the search engine giant consistently says it has no plans to do Wi-Fi outside of these two cities (where the preponderance of its staffers live). Google will purchase wholesale access to the EarthLink network in San Francisco and use the bandwidth to give away 300 Kbps access to all comers for the low, low price of watching targeted advertising. Faster service will be available from EarthLink; likely cost is expected at $20 per month for 1Mbps downloads. EarthLink is going to offer wholesale access to any provider on a non-discriminatory basis.

EarthLink is now the darling of two major cities going wireless. Philadelphia picked the ISP to unwire its environs back in October 2005. That deployment has been repeatedly held up, but Tolpegin says negotiations are over and it only is waiting for a final approval from the city council. Cost of deployment there is estimated to be $15 million. Tolpegin says San Francisco will probably cost less, as the city is about one-third the size and they'll likely use less equipment, even with the famous hill-terrain topology of the Bay Area. "The topology will drive the architecture," says Tolpegin.

The San Francisco mayor's office — which first proposed wireless for the municipality in 2004 — hopes that the city's Wi-Fi cloud will be operational by the end of the year.

"A lot of this depends on how contract negotiations go," says Tolpegin. "The faster they go, the more likely we can go this year. There may be new requirements introduced; it's a dynamic situation. We're ready to move quickly."