Free Wi-Fi may come to a vote this week

Mayor Gavin Newsom’s high-profile agreement with Google and EarthLink to set up a free citywide wireless network is positioned this week to clear key hurdles that could finally land it before the full Board of Supervisors for a vote.

The agreement, which Newsom submitted to the Board of Supervisors for approval in January, has met with criticism by some members of the board and faces opposition from the San Francisco Neighborhood Antenna Free Union, or SNAFU, which has requested an environmental review of the impact of the more than 2,000 antennas that would be installed to setup the wireless, or Wi-Fi, network. A review would take about a year.

On Tuesday, the full Board of Supervisors will vote on SNAFU’s request. SNAFU claims that the antennas emit a radio frequency at about the same level as cell phone antennas, which can cause health problems. The frequencies are considered within an acceptable range under federal guidelines.

On Wednesday, the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee will hold a hearing on the Wi-Fi agreement. Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, who chairs the committee, said he would introduce an amendment to the agreement that he thinks would likely ensure its passage by the full board.

“With some modifications, we’re moving in the right direction and should be able to get to ‘yes,’” Peskin said.

Those modifications include increasing the free Wi-Fi speed that Google would offer under the proposal from 300 kilobits per second to at least 500 kilobits per second, decreasing the length of the contract from 16 years to eight years, and giving The City the option to purchase the network after eight years at a fair market value price.

Google and EarthLink would have to agree to those changes. “We look forward to working with Supervisor Peskin on hammering out the best possible agreement,” Newsom spokesman Nathan Ballard said.

One of the most vocal critics of the agreement is Supervisor Jake McGoldrick, who has advocated that The City move forward on its own to set up a Wi-Fi network, which he said could provide better service to residents. McGoldrick objects to giving up public assets for what he considers not enough money and believes the free service is not fast enough.

Under the agreement, Google would provide the free Wi-Fi while EarthLink would provide a faster Wi-Fi service of 1 megabit per second at a monthly charge of $19.95. EarthLink would pay The City about $2 million during the initial four-year term of the contract.

jsabatini@examiner.com

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