San Francisco Looks To Wireless Future

By Eric Griffith

August 17, 2005

The city's TechConnect program is on the starting block to unwire all 49 miles of hilly terrain for 'affordable broadband' -- not necessarily free.

It's no secret that the mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, wants wireless. Last year, he said of city plans to install a wireless cloud, "We will not stop until every San Franciscan has access to free wireless Internet service."

The City by the Bay took a big step toward gaining that citywide Wi-Fi service this week by issuing a Request for Information and Comments (RFI/C) about unwiring the 49 square miles south of the Golden Gate. The city is calling the program TechConnect. It will be run by the Mayor’s Office, the Department of Telecommunications and Information Services (DTIS), and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC).

Minimum requirements of the network will be: use of 802.11b/g with 1Mbps of throughput for each user, 90 percent coverage for indoor use, and 95 percent coverage for outdoor use. TechConnect doesn't want end users to be required to buy additional equipment beyond their Wi-Fi laptop, PDA or phone to get a signal while outdoors, though indoor CPEs are a possibility. Preferably, the signal will extend above the second floor of buildings as well.  The wireless LAN will be used by residents, visitors, businesses, institutions, and the city government and first responders.

Free service for all is probably not in the cards, however. The mayor's statement on the TechConnect's Web site specifically calls for "affordable, wireless broadband access." However, the RFI/C does say that the city should be allowed to "designate certain parks, common areas and other residential and business zones within the City to allow any user with a Wi-Fi device to gain free and open access to the network."

Mayor Newsom told the San Jose Mercury News that the cost to install the network would likely fall between $10 and $18 million; however, TechConnect's literature says the city is making "no financial commitments at this stage of the process."  The hillsides of the city will present a major challenge for vendors looking to deploy something citywide.

An open "Pre-RFI/C" meeting will be at the San Francisco Main Library on August 31. Companies, non-profits, community groups, and private citizens have until Sept. 7 to submit questions, which the city will answer by Sept. 14. The next and final deadline is for respondents to submit comments to TechConnect/DTIS by 5 p.m. on Sept. 28.

It's too early to say how closely TechConnect's plans resemble the well-known Wireless Philadelphia initiative. When Philly's plans were first announced, incumbent broadband providers like Verizon were not happy, and they helped push through a bill in Pennsylvania to prevent municipalities from operating such networks. Mayor Newsom expects to go up against similar opposition. Companies including SBC and Comcast offer broadband in the city. (Philadelphia's plan was allowed to go forward, and by Verizon, no less; the telco had first refusal rights.)

Many states, including Florida, have passed similar legislation to protect incumbent broadband providers. Federally, a bill has  been proposed in the House of Representatives against state and local governments offering broadband. Another bill in the Senate -- the  Community Broadband Act of 2005 (S. 1294)  -- would change the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to allow municipalities to offer high-speed Internet access in any form.

Wireless Philadelphia will run its 135-square-mile network as a non-profit, making money by licensing access to carriers and providers who will in turn resell access to end users. TechConnect's RFI/C states that the city could provide wireless through private and public partnerships, but also reserves the right to offer it as a city utility or service.

Wireless Philadelphia is running late. The city was expected to announce the winner two weeks ago among three finalists picked out of 12 proposals to deploy and manage the network. Earlier this year, the city thought a decision would be made by June, with deployment to commence this month. All three Philly proposals include use of Wi-Fi mesh equipment from either Tropos Networks or BelAir Networks. Such self-configuring mesh equipment has become a favorite method of handling municipality-wide wireless networks.

Last September, San Francisco DTIS worked with the city's Recreation and Parks Department and vendors Terabeam Wireless and Feeva (formerly UnWireNow) to build a free hotspot in Union Square. Google later became a sponsor for the network, which is interesting, because  Business 2.0 recently said that the search giant might be getting ready to launch a nationwide wireless network. Google is apparently buying up unused fiber-optic cable and other fast connections across the nation at bargain prices. Writer Om Malik imagines Google becoming a megalith of an Internet Service Provider providing free access, perhaps by serving advertising to users through Feeva's technology.

As San Franciscans wait for the Wi-Fi cloud to settle upon them, there's still plenty of wireless access to go around. AnchorFree Wireless offers five hotzones (at the Marina District, Cow Hollow, Pacific Heights, Castro Street, and downtown near Union Square) that all are free for use. JiWire's online directory of hotspots pegs the city as having 420 venues with Wi-Fi. In fact, the entire Bay area, including San Jose and Oakland, is ranked at #2 on the Intel Most Unwired Cities Survey for 2005, just behind Seattle. San Francisco International Airport is #8 on the Most Unwired Airports list.

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