Showdown likely over Internet access

A showdown may be on the horizon between The City’s legislative body and the mayor over who should own a free, public Internet service that all agree San Francisco should implement.

At a meeting of the Local Agency Formation Commission on Friday, Supervisors Jake McGoldrick and Ross Mirkarimi indicated that the Board of Supervisors may soon vote to make San Francisco’s proposed public Internet service the property of The City.

The move would fly in the face of efforts by Mayor Gavin Newsom’s office to contract with Google and Earthlink to create a free wireless Internet, or Wi-Fi, service citywide.

Critics of the mayor’s plans for a free Wi-Fi network argue that the companies that would administer the network don’t have San Franciscans’ best interests at heart, but would put their own interests in making a profit first. Proponents of the privately owned network argue that it would save The City money, and that the administration of complicated technological systems is best left to experts.

“It’s inevitable that crunch time is going to come pretty soon,” McGoldrick said, while hearing a progress report on the Wi-Fi project Monday from San Francisco Department of Telecommunications policy analyst Brian Roberts.

McGoldrick and Mirkarimi urged Roberts to begin working on a proposal for a city-owned system. “I would be willing to gamble that at least the majority of the municipality will want to see this provided,” Mirkarimi said. He indicated that the board would likely take a vote calling for such a proposal, but refrained from saying when.

Newsom’s office maintains that the project is best left in the hands of private experts. “Wireless Internet technologies are among the most dynamic and rapidly evolving. In that context, we have to ask ourselves, is that city government’s core competency,” Newsom’s spokeswoman, Jennifer Petrucione, said Friday.

If corporations were to provide San Francisco’s public Internet access, The City would pay no fees, under a tentative agreement with Earthlink and Google. The service would include free service and a paid, premium service level. The companies would make revenue from the fees for the premium service and by selling advertisements on the free service.

Activist Kimo Crossman said during the hearing that San Francisco is a very desirable market, and that the proposed deal does not meet the standards The City should hold for itself. “We should hold out for the best deal possible, whether city-owned or not,” he said.

amartin@examiner.com

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