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Free Wi-Fi coming to Market

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Evan DuCharme/Special to The S.F. Examiner
Students attend a Hack Reactor session in downtown San Francisco on a recent afternoon. The coding school accepts one student for every 30 applicants.

Data-hungry San Franciscans may soon receive a break: a new Market Street Wi-Fi network from the Ferry Building to the Castro District, which will allow smartphone users to stream music and video while avoiding their network's data limits.

And it's free.

Under a deal inked last fall between The City and AT&T, the telecommunications giant is currently surveying lampposts, street signs and other surfaces along The City's main drag to find locations to install hardware for a long-awaited free city Wi-Fi network along the Market Street corridor, according to the Department of Technology.

And the Internet connection will truly be free: AT&T is building and maintaining the network at no cost to taxpayers, according to Ron Vinson, the Department of Technology's director of media. Users also won't be subjected to advertisements or other hassles in order to enjoy free Wi-Fi, according to the terms of the deal.

Users may already see an open network under the name “attwifi” in select spots in the Financial District and elsewhere. Once launched — the exact date is not yet known — the Market Street free Wi-Fi will use the same network name, according to the memorandum of understanding signed in September 2012 between AT&T and The City.

Free Wi-Fi is already a reality at select city-owned buildings. Visitors to City Hall can use the Internet free of charge at the Board of Supervisors' chambers, and the often-interminable wait at Muni's customer service center at 1 South Van Ness can be made to go faster while using the Wi-Fi signal there.

Public housing at San Francisco Housing Authority facilities and the Department of the Environment's new home at 1455 Market Street also enjoy open Wi-Fi signals.

Staff turnover at The City's Department of Technology has helped slow down the Market Street network's rollout, which was initially scheduled to be formalized in a binding contract by March 1.

The City's new Chief Information Officer, Marc Yves Touitou, just assumed duties in late April, and the staff person who had headed the deal with AT&T just left her post, Vinson said.

It's not clear how quickly the company wants to move or when it will debut the service along the Market Street corridor. Through a spokesman, AT&T declined to comment about the service.

Once installed, the network will remain open and active for five years.

Free Wi-Fi has been dangled in front of San Franciscans' faces before, with mixed results. A scheme to partner with Google to blanket The City with free high-speed Internet under Mayor Gavin Newsom fizzled about five years ago, in part because plan opponents questioned whether a costly and time-consuming environmental impact review was needed.

The “attwifi” effort shouldn't need to clear such hurdles, Vinson said. The hardware will be installed on existing infrastructure — and citizens wary about Wi-Fi-signals' health hazards have been calmed. “Nowadays, everyone knows Wi-Fi signals won't hurt you,” he added.

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