Free Wi-Fi debuts on Market Street today; more projects expected mid-2014

Free Wi-Fi networks dotting San Francisco are going online soon, with one project even launching today.

The estimated 250,000 people who visit San Francisco’s busiest and arguably most colorful thoroughfare daily will have access to a free public wireless network starting today along Market Street from the Castro district to The Embarcadero.

And in six months, a free public network will be launched in dozens of open spaces around The City.

“Nearly a quarter-million people walk down Market Street every day, and now they will be able to connect to the Internet through our free public Wi-Fi,” Mayor Ed Lee said. “Providing Wi-Fi on our city’s main busy thoroughfare is a big first step towards a larger vision of connectivity for our city as a whole, bridging the digital divide and ensuring that our diverse communities have access to innovation.”

Lee is expected to officially announce the Wi-Fi project on Market Street today, only days after New York launched a free 95-block outdoor public Wi-Fi network in Harlem, which will be the nation’s largest when it’s completed in May. Both cities are home to thriving technology industries.

In San Francisco, both outdoor networks were made possible through gifts from technology companies.

The Market Street network is being funded through a $700,000 gift of hardware from Bay Area-based Ruckus Wireless. At minimum, the Market Street network has a 1 megabit upload and a 2 megabit download speed. However, it was much higher during initial tests.

Meanwhile, Google is issuing a $608,000 grant to pay for Wi-Fi installation in 31 parks and plazas citywide, which was announced in July by the mayor and Supervisor Mark Farrell. Selected parks should see the Wi-Fi up and running by July.

Both technology gifts will be submitted Tuesday to the Board of Supervisors for approval, which is expected next month.

The efforts mark a turnaround for San Francisco’s ambitions to become a city with free Wi-Fi for all, an effort that was previously within reach under a proposed deal with technology provider Earthlink, in partnership with Google, in 2007. That deal fell apart amid political infighting. It included both a pay service and free service with ads, and Earthlink would have owned the network.

Six years later, the model has changed significantly. These Wi-Fi networks are a gift to The City, and the services are free to use, ad-free and owned by The City.

Board members, including Supervisor Eric Mar, are praising the efforts and want to see more such endeavors.

“We need more free access,” Mar said. “Donations are good from the tech companies, but they need to do a lot more.”

Mar is working with Brewster Kahle, digital librarian and founder of the San Francisco-based Internet Archive, which has an office at Clement Street and Funston Avenue in Mar’s Richmond district. Mar wants to expand free Wi-Fi in that neighborhood.

Which locations the mayor will select next for similar installations isn’t clear, but they are being discussed and include public housing sites, the Third Street corridor and along The Embarcadero on the waterfront.

Not everyone welcomes the high-tech upgrade. Singer-songwriter Shannon Bryant, a mother who lives in West Portal, wants The City to reject the Google gift.

“Do we really want to create an environment where the general public, parents and caregivers are sitting with their computers connected with the Internet instead of connecting with nature and our children?” Bryant said. “Do we want to teach our children that parks are for going online and consuming products instead of playing in the grass or climbing a tree? We don’t.”

Mar offered a different take. He said being connected “can enhance people’s physical activity and enjoyment of nature.”

Opponents of the 2007 deal, who had formed the PublicNet Coalition, are supportive of the tech gifts. Community organizer Eric Brooks believes their efforts have paid off.

“Us succeeding and stopping them … is part of the reason that now these companies like Google — because they see that it’s valuable to them — are now just offering us free Wi-Fi, which is what they should have done to begin with,” Brooks said. “We forced them to give it to us instead of selling it to us.”

Staying connected

Free Wi-Fi will be available to the general public at 31 parks and plazas across San Francisco by July 2014.

Alamo Square

Balboa Park

Bernal Heights Recreation Center

Boeddeker Park

Chinese Recreation Center

Civic Center Plaza

Corona Heights

Crocker Amazon Playground

Duboce Park

Eureka Valley Rec Center

Gene Friend Rec Center

Hamilton Rec Center

Huntington Park

Joseph Lee Recreation Center

Justin Herman Plaza

Margaret Hayward

Marina Green

Minnie & Lovie Ward Rec Center

Mission Dolores Park

Mission Rec Center

Palega Recreation Center

Portsmith Square

Richmond Recreation Center

St Mary’s Rec Center

St Mary’s Square

Sue Bierman Park

Sunnyside Playground

Sunset Playground

Tenderloin Children’s Rec Center

Upper Noe Recreation Center

Washington Square

Source: Board of Supervisors

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