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Free Wi-Fi at city parks part of fully wired goal

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Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
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Bringing free wireless data service to city parks could be a launchpad for the long-sought goal of blanketing the entire city with Wi-Fi.

San Francisco is expected to officially announce today a $600,000 gift from Google to set up a free public wireless network in 31 parks and plazas, including Balboa and Washington Square parks.

The plan comes six years after San Francisco residents were promised a free Wi-Fi network, only to have those hopes dashed when technology provider Earthlink, in partnership with Google, bowed out of the deal amid political infighting and disagreements over the proposal.

Additionally, as The City has become a hotbed for flashy tech startups, attracting thousands of workers, the lack of free public Wi-Fi is increasingly glaring.

Supervisor Mark Farrell said Tuesday he has been working on re-engaging Google about a Wi-Fi network since he was elected two years ago.

“This is purely a gift,” Farrell said. “We wanted to create a model project that was done the right way and use it as an example of how to take free Wi-Fi across San Francisco.”

Under the deal, Google would provide $600,000 in funding to sf.citi, a nonprofit group comprising hundreds of tech companies that is chaired by angel investor Ron Conway, who's also a prominent backer and ally of Mayor Ed Lee. The group would then have wireless company iNet install the equipment using existing city infrastructure such as utility poles, fiber optic cables and radio towers. Once built out, the system would be given to the Department of Technology as a gift.

The plan is to have it up and running by next spring. The proposal requires approval from the Recreation and Park Commission, and the Board of Supervisors must sign off on the money from Google.

Recreation and Park Department General Manager Phil Ginsburg praised the effort, calling it a “best practice” in public parks that's offered in cities such as New York and Paris.

Some wireless service does already exist in parks, Ginsburg said, but it's spotty at best or users are picking up “on some other signals.” He said the technology will improve park users' experience, help expand department programming and advance the park system into the 21st century.

Marc Touitou, director of the Department of Technology, said plans for a citywide network are underway. He said there are talks scheduled to feel out interest from companies that provide wireless service, such as AT&T.

Connectivity, he said, has become essential.

“You can't do without it,” he said. “It's part of your day-to-day life.”

Touitou said similar announcements are expected in the coming months, including the launch of a free wireless network before Dec. 25 along Market Street that will be installed and operated by the Department of Technology.

Correction: This story was updated July 24 to clarify that the Department of Technology will be operating the Market Street Wi-Fi network and not AT&T.

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