SF claims progress in Wi-Fi negotiations

By , IDG News Service |  Mobile & Wireless

Google Inc. and EarthLink Inc.'s Wi-Fi contract with San Francisco would have a renewable four-year term and would require a proof-of-concept deployment before the full network is rolled out, if progress so far in negotiations holds firm, according to the city.

The companies were chosen earlier this year to build and operate a citywide Wi-Fi network with both free and faster paid services. San Francisco officials are now negotiating with them on the exact terms of the relationship, in which the vendors will bear the cost of the network while the city will provide the use of light poles and other city assets for deploying it. The city has said it expects the network to go live in 2007.

The parties have made progress in the talks, which began in May, said Brian Roberts, a senior policy analyst for the city's Department of Telecommunications and Information Services. On Friday afternoon, he defended that progress to the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) when asked about an article last week in the San Francisco Chronicle in which a Google executive said little had been decided. LAFCO is a county agency that provides oversight of cable TV franchises and other issues.

Nothing is definite until the entire contract is agreed upon, Roberts said, but he highlighted some areas where he said there is accord so far.

As negotiations stand now, Google and EarthLink would have a contract to provide the wireless broadband service for four years. At the end of that term, the city could shut down the arrangement without having to show a specific cause, he said. It could also demand the technology be upgraded as a condition for renewing the deal. The term could then be renewed as many as three times, for a total period of 16 years.

The vendors first would have to roll out a test network, which would cover about two square miles, for as long as six months to show whether their technology would really work, Roberts said.

The talks also have addressed some of the thorny privacy issues that have generated criticism he said. Google and EarthLink would be able to collect information about a user's whereabouts while using the network, but that user would be able to opt out of giving that information, Roberts said. If they collect the information, the vendors could only keep the data for 60 days. During that time, they couldn't share information about specific users except in certain cases in which it's sought by law enforcement or courts.

In exchange for the use of its rights of way, San Francisco is seeking 5 percent of gross revenue from the network, Roberts said. It also will seek a fee for use of city-owned light poles. That money would help to support city initiatives to narrow the digital divide between rich and poor residents. Negotiators haven't reached agreement on those financial terms, he said.

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