Fuzzy signal for San Francisco's wireless plans

Despite its private-sector tech prowess, San Francisco as a city has fallen short on its effort to provide free wireless Internet access to all. Whether due to politics, infrastructure or a good idea that didn’t go far enough, universal connectivity for sidewalks, parks and public squares of The City remains just an idea.

After a deal to provide free access with an ad-supported service by Earthlink and Google got caught up in The City’s nasty political climate of 2006, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom looked to local tech company Meraki in 2008 to create a resident-fueled network of football-size Wi-Fi repeaters on rooftops.

But since then, Meraki has refocused its business model to hardware and cloud computing, away from operating primarily as an Internet service provider. A 2009 announcement that the company had covered 80 percent of San Francisco with free Wi-Fi actually showed the access clumped in the Mission and Castro neighborhoods, leaving much of the west side of The City without any such free public access.

For now, The City plans to take a more piecemeal approach to expanding free access in public spaces like parks and libraries. According to the Department of Technology, Wi-Fi sites under development include myriad public library branches, Duboce Park and the Cortland Avenue commercial corridor in Bernal Heights, all using the existing city-owned 110 miles of fiber optic cables.

Jon Walton, The City’s chief information officer, said the incremental strategy will have to be fueled by already-strained budgets in various departments and only $80,000 dedicated to new wireless infrastructure for the Department of Technology.

Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, a candidate for mayor, said only about 10 percent of the public fiber optic cable capacity is actually being used. As for Wi-Fi services from the public cables ultimately becoming free, Chiu said more investigation needs to be done on who should oversee the service and the best way to proceed with advancing technology.

“If The City has an underutilized public asset, we should use it,” Chiu said.

A 2009 consultant’s report commissioned by The City said universal free Internet, connected through fiber optic cables running directly into homes and businesses, could cost between $500 million and $750 million. Costs would presumably be recouped over time if The City could capture a 36-percent market share of Web browser advertising sales, according to the report.

City politicians have touted the potential free service’s ability to bridge the “digital divide” between those with and without Internet access. It has become an issue in the San Francisco mayoral race, with most candidates at a June forum calling for basic upgrades to publicly available technology. The Police Department, for example, only recently introduced email to all employees, while applying for a job with The City in some cases can only be done via the Internet.

Mayoral candidate Phil Ting regards the access as a big issue, and suggested that money The City spends on mailing required notices and other materials be redirected to a fund dedicated to expanding free Internet.

“This should be done not so much as a luxury, but as a necessity,” Ting said.


Where in San Francisco is the free Wi-Fi?

Well, it’s at most coffee shops and some bars, but that would require you to be a customer, so it’s not completely free or “public,” per se. If you were just walking the streets, parks and beaches with a laptop or iPad, what’s your best bet?

Ocean Beach
No Wi-Fi to stream soothing ’70s-era yacht rock, but the sound of waves is plenty relaxing.

Japantown Plaza
Surf away under the multitiered rooftop of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California.

Union Square
Even though The City’s public Wi-Fi plans are “under development” for Union Square, there’s enough signal available here so the tourists and shoppers bask in free digital bliss.

Clement Street, Richmond District
Not likely
Some businesses offer it, and plenty of residential Wi-Fi signals pop up throughout the Richmond district with funny names for nodes like Clement Ninjas. In an apparent effort to deter would-be hackers or pilferers, some are simply called Virus. Most are locked, however.

Washington Square Park, North Beach
A mysterious Free Clear Channel Wi-Fi opportunity pops up, but connectivity ultimately fails. An equally mysterious Clear Channel “outdoor operations” vehicle is later discovered on the edge of the park.

Financial District
Not likely
The infamous fake Free Public Wi-Fi signal proves worthless, and a potential virus threat, at the corner of California and Kearny streets.

City-sponsored public Wi-Fi sites in San Francisco

  • City Hall
  • Main Civic Center branch of the San Francisco Public Library
  • Heron’s Head EcoCenter
  • Richmond Library
  • Sunset Neighborhood Beacon Center
  • Laguna Honda Hospital
  • Gray Area Foundation for the Arts
  • Mission Economic Development Agency


Wi-Fi sites under development

  • Duboce Park
  • Cortland Avenue commercial corridor
  • Bernal Heights Library
  • Chinatown Library
  • Visitacion Valley Library
  • Oceanview Library
  • Ingleside Library
  • Parkside Library
  • Ortega Library

Future Wi-Fi sites

  • Tenderloin housing sites
  • Civic Center
  • Music concourse in Golden Gate Park
  • Union Square
  • Garfield Playground and Recreation Center
  • Castro and Market streets


Source: Department of Technology

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