San Francisco gives its main street free Wi-Fi, eyes citywide service

The outdoor network was built using donated equipment from Ruckus Wireless

By , IDG News Service |  Mobile & Wireless

If you want something done, sometimes you just have to do it yourself.

The city and county of San Francisco teamed up with Earthlink and Google nearly a decade ago to build what was planned as a citywide Wi-Fi network, only to see Earthlink retreat from its municipal Wi-Fi business in 2007. The citywide system was never built.

Now San Francisco is taking another shot at that goal and is going it alone, at least for now. On Monday, the city will turn on free outdoor Wi-Fi along Market Street, the city's main drag, all the way from the central Castro District to where the street meets San Francisco Bay. On Monday morning, a splash screen appearing on the network read, "Welcome! Enjoy This Free Service. Mayor Edwin M. Lee."

The network will be free, won't carry ads and won't require users to sign in. Unlike the failed Earthlink system, it won't be offered as a home broadband service and will be strictly an outdoor network.

San Francisco, Philadelphia, a group of Silicon Valley governments and other municipalities placed high hopes on public-private Wi-Fi networks in the middle of the last decade as a way to make public areas more attractive to Internet-savvy visitors and get underserved, low-income people online. But proposed business models built around advertising or daily and monthly largely subscriptions proved unsuccessful and in some cases were legally challenged by private service providers. Since then, some networks centered more on municipal uses and resources have emerged.

After the disappointments of the past, and drawn-out discussions of possible new projects since Earthlink pulled out, the Market Street deployment will prove city Wi-Fi can work in San Francisco, said Marc Touitou, the city's CIO.

"The citizens are going to say, OK, those guys are for real. They can do this," said Touitou, who was hired earlier this year. Planned as a three-month project, the Market deployment missed that target but was completed in a matter of months, in contrast to the years of wrangling involved in the Google-Earthlink network.

"I believe that I can go much faster just with the agencies of the city," Touitou said.

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