SF Wi-Fi idea draws mixed reviews

While backers say free Wi-Fi in San Francisco will bring a wide range of benefits and critics fear a Googlistic Big Brother, ordinary locals and visitors in the city by the bay have other takes on the controversy -- or don't even know about it.

The city government is now negotiating with EarthLink Inc. and Google Inc. on the terms of a deal that would let EarthLink operate a paid service at about 1M bps (bit per second) and Google offer free 300K bps service. Both would run on a network that uses city assets, such as light poles where access points would be mounted, and in turn the government would benefit from greater connectivity for public safety and city employees.

Some ordinary San Franciscans and visitors last week said they weren't even aware of the issue, a surprise given the heavy coverage of debates over U.S. cities getting involved in broadband delivery. Others had strong opinions on either side.

If EarthLink delivered its service for about US$20 per month, a price range the company has suggested in the past, it would be worth looking into as an alternative to wired broadband, said Paul Groth, an architectural historian who lives in the city and said he pays about $35 per month for DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) service. But the network also could deliver social benefits, Groth said.

"The more people you can give access to, the better," Groth said. He likened city contracts with Wi-Fi providers to other public-private partnerships such as streetcar lines and power companies. "Treating broadband as a utility is a step up," Groth said. However, he also sees a risk of corruption in such an arrangement.

Wireless Internet access throughout cities is inevitable, and carriers should get in on it, said Dan Irvine, a hedge-fund salesman from Denver who was visiting San Francisco on business. Location-based advertising for businesses nearby a user could be a great source of revenue, Irvine said. As it is, many people already get their broadband for free by tapping in to their neighbors' Wi-Fi. he said. "I could probably get six signals right here," said Irvine, sitting at the base of the Transamerica Pyramid in the city's financial district.

Even within a high-tech hub like San Francisco, technology means different things to different people. One woman who said she works near the city's civic center hadn't heard of the Wi-Fi plan and didn't care because her employer already provides her with high-speed wireless data service. A man waiting at a bus stop in the North Beach area said he had heard of the plan but hadn't paid it much mind because he doesn't own a computer.

Free Internet access would be a good step toward bringing disadvantaged groups into the technology mainstream, said Nancy Record, who works at a day-care center in the city. But it would still leave the challenge of getting equipment in the hands of those who can't afford it, she added.

The fact that the city needs to spearhead the project raises alarm bells for one visitor.

"Something's not exactly right here," said Kelly Wickoff, a former telecom engineer visiting from Redding, California. If there were enough demand to make the service viable, the private sector would build it, he said. But the proposed combination of government and corporate involvement makes him doubly wary of unscrupulous deals, Wickoff added.

He thinks the service might be useful for people who don't mind carrying around a notebook PC or other device. For example, with localized search capability, a tourist could find a nearby comedy club on the spur of the moment, he said. However, he added that Internet access may not be the highest priority outdoors on a sunny summer day.

"Sometimes you want to get away from that," Wickoff said.

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