The Politics of San Francisco Wi-Fi

Earlier this week, the San Francisco Examiner reported on what it called a likely political showdown that could change the direction of the much delayed Wi-Fi network planned for the entire city by the Bay.

The report stated that members of the city’s Board of Supervisors might vote to make the network city-owned. This is in stark contrast to the plans set forth by the mayor’s office to have private company EarthLink, with an assist from Google, own and run the network as a wholesale provider.

Supervisors Jake McGoldrick and Ross Mirkarimi apparently urged San Francisco Department of Telecommunications policy analyst Brian Roberts to work on a proposal for a city-owned version of the network, but declined to say when they would vote on such a thing.

The office of Mayor Gavin Newsom reiterated that the network would be better put in the hands of the “private experts,” meaning EarthLink/Google.

There are conflicting opinions on whether this is a serious move on the part of the supervisors.

Craig Settles, a muni Wi-Fi analyst through his site, says if the vote does occur, “there’s going to be more than a little wailing and gnashing of teeth,” but he told Wi-Fi Planet the city has no one to blame but itself. “Had the people driving this initiative taken their time to first do the type of focus groups Philadelphia did with the diversity of constituent groups, plus executed one or two pilot projects, there would not have been the steady drumbeat of constituent and activist discontent that has lead to the Supervisors’ current decision,” he says.

However, the question may really be, will the supervisors go through with such a vote, or is it just so much posturing? Esme Vos of wrote in a commentary on the topic, “The SF Board of Supervisors is doing what boards of supervisors (or similar bodies) in other municipalities do — which is to question the reigning mayor’s decisions.” She uses her home city of Amsterdam as an example, where differing political parties almost automatically lead to questions and even outright investigations.

Vos says, “So far, [there’s] nothing special about the Board of Supervisors looking into SF’s network and frankly nothing at all to get into a tizzy about, unless you live in San Francisco and care very deeply about getting citywide Wi-Fi up and running as soon as possible.”

She feels the issue is blown out of proportion by the number of journalists who cover the story and probably have something riding on it by living in the area. She considers the price of wholesale access to broadband in the U.S. a much bigger issue.

Settles — who does reside in nearby Oakland, California, but is currently traveling in Europe — says ultimately, if there are changes in the San Francisco network plan, this is the time to do it even if it causes unmerited aggravation and perhaps even an unfair outcome for EarthLink and Google: “At least this change of direction won’t be after the city has spent serious money pursuing the network,” he says.

Philadelphia, cited above by Settles for its handling of its own network (which is being installed by EarthLink), recently sent out invitations for a $200 per person launch party for Wireless Philadelphia, to take place next week on November 30, 2006.

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