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Citywide wireless deal hits snag

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Mayor Gavin Newsom’s high-profile agreement with Earthlink and Google to blanket San Francisco in a free wireless Internet network could be held up until a fully fleshed-out study on a city-owned network is completed.

Supervisor Jake McGoldrick has emerged as a champion of a city-owned wireless, or Wi-Fi, network and authored a resolution that requests a detailed study of the prospect before the Board of Supervisors vote on the Wi-Fi agreement. If approved by the full board in two weeks, the resolution would hold up the vote on the Earthlink and Google agreement, McGoldrick said.

McGoldrick said the Department of Telecommunications and Information Services, which negotiated the deal with Earthlink and Google, failed to study the idea of a municipally owned Wi-Fi network, which he said could result in better service for residents since The City is not profit-driven.

DTIS Director Chris Vein defended the department’s decision to move forward with a private-public partnership, saying it was the best model based on consultation with the nation’s “best and brightest” technology experts. He said the proposed agreement is the envy of other cities.

The Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee approved McGoldrick’s resolution on Wednesday. McGoldrick said a study on a city-owned Wi-Fi network could take “a couple of months” to complete.

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A budget analyst report says The City could build its own Wi-Fi network for a cost between $6 million and $10 million and would need to spend $1.5 million to $2 million annually to maintain it. The City could offset these costs through such things as user fees and advertising.

“It seems pretty cut and dry that it’s in the best interest of The City from an economic perspective to move forward with a municipally owned city network,” said Supervisor Chris Daly, an outspoken Newsom critic.

Heather Hudson, a University of San Francisco professor of telecommunication, advised moving forward with the Earthlink and Google agreement as it would come at no financial risk to The City. “[The agreement] doesn’t close your options but leaves them open. It’s a good deal,” Hudson said.

Under the four-year contract with Earthlink and Google, Earthlink would spend the estimated $15 million to build the network. Google would use the network to offer a free Wi-Fi service that would allow people to surf the Web at six to eight times the speed of dial-up. To help recoup its costs, Google would sell advertisements. Earthlink would provide wireless service at three times faster than the free service for a charge of $21.95 per month.

As part of the agreement, Earthlink would pay The City $600,000 for right-of-way access and $40,000 annually to be able to use city light poles to mount equipment needed to build the wireless network. The City would also receive 5 percent of the gross revenue from subscribers, which is expected to generate about $300,000 annually.


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