Free wireless network expands to Tenderloin

The Tenderloin has joined a growing number of San Francisco neighborhoods to gain free basic wireless Internet, Mayor Gavin Newsom announced Tuesday.

Speaking at a news conference at the St. Anthony Foundation's new social service center, Newsom acknowledged a digital divide among city residents and said free Internet is one tool that will help close it.

The city has been collaborating with San Francisco-based wireless networking technology company Meraki Inc. to bring free wireless to all neighborhoods, Newsom said.

As of this week, free wireless Internet is accessible in about 80 percent of city neighborhoods and parts of all neighborhoods are expected to have access by the end of the year, according to Meraki CEO Sanjit Biswas.

Biswas said some 155,000 different computers have accessed Meraki's free network called Free the Net.

The network is available to certain residents in neighborhoods including the Mission, Bernal Heights, Haight Ashbury and North Beach, and Meraki hopes to expand coverage to neighborhoods such as the Richmond, Sunset, Excelsior and Marina by the end of the year.

At the news conference, Newsom acknowledged unsuccessful attempts to provide free citywide Internet through partnerships with Google and Earthlink, but said those attempts were not in vain and the city and Meraki are exceeding goals.

“At this pace, we're but a few years away from having the city covered,'' Newsom said.

The news conference, held in the St. Anthony Foundation's new Employment Program/Tech Lab, was also attended by representatives of the foundation, San Francisco Network Ministries and the Department of Public
Housing.

The new technology lab at St. Anthony's social services center is a partnership between the foundation and San Francisco Network Ministries, an organization devoted to Tenderloin residents.

The new Employment Program/Tech Lab will include drop-ins and classes that teach everything from how to create an e-mail account to how to use a variety of software.

The Rev. Glenda Hope, director of San Francisco Network Ministries, said free Internet is a “good start,'' but said in addition to
access, people need computer skills and training.

St. Anthony's Executive Director Father John Hardin said, “This digital divide is incredible. You can't even run a cash register nowadays unless you know something about computers.''

Newsom also announced today the free wireless network is expected to expand to 10 low-income housing sites operated by the San Francisco Housing Authority and technology labs will be created on Monday in recognition of One Web Day.

Meraki funds all costs for establishing the network in the city, using San Francisco as a test bed for the technology and to demonstrate to other cities worldwide how its technology can be used, Biswas said.

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