Bay Area grabs for Wi-Fi lead

From Silicon Valley to biotech, the Bay Area can take justifiable pride in consistently being at the cutting edge of world-class technological leadership. In fact, it is our tradition for high-tech innovation combined with an inviting quality of life that enables this high-cost region to compete globally.

Now the Bay Area is on track to take the lead again, as detailed negotiations are under way with two consortiums seeking to create the nation’s largest public wireless Internet coverage from San Francisco through San Mateo Peninsula and Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Alameda counties.

The latest development in this breakthrough is that the Wireless Silicon Valley Project, which represents San Mateo County and some 2.4 million Bay Area residents outside San Francisco, last week picked a new consortium of IBM, Cisco and two smaller companies to provide Wi-Fi coverage over nearly 1,500 square miles.

San Francisco made its own preliminary deal in February with a Google-EarthLink partnership and has been working through the fine points ever since. When Wi-Fi goes online in the next year or so, all counties surrounding San Francisco Bay would theoretically become a giant “hot spot” such as those which have become a popular feature of many local coffee houses and airports.

The basic economic principle of these “free” public wireless Internet agreements is that private corporations pay the costs of building, operating and maintaining the system in expectation of profiting from selling advertisements on the no-frills, no-fee service and charging monthly fees for faster premium services with additional features.

Local governments also hope to benefit by gaining access to fast, new public safety communications bandwidth they’re not paying for, and so it is not surprising that some 300 municipal Wi-Fi projects are being explored across the USA.

Technology trade journals point out some potential pitfalls to universal Wi-Fi. For one thing, reception is designed for outdoors and street level. Most home users wishing to drop their monthly Internet provider fees would need to invest about $100 for a special wireless modem.

More importantly, Internet wireless transmission power is improving so rapidly that if cities are not vigilant they could get locked into outmoded Wi-Fi speeds nobody wants to use. This already happened in the now-abandoned system in Orlando, Fla.

The brand-new Wireless Silicon Valley draft agreement heads off this problem by requiring a full technology update every three years, just as the successful Philadelphia Wi-Fi system does. Now San Francisco must also insist on the same safeguard in its final contract, if universal Wi-Fi is truly to take off in The City.

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