Supervisor raises questions about Wi-Fi plan for The City

One city official is pushing for a municipally run wireless Internet network to blanket San Francisco, which he says could be more favorable for The City than a plan offered by Google and Earthlink.

The two companies are negotiating a contract with The City to cover San Francisco’s 46 square miles with a Wi-Fi network, providing both free and paid service to residents. The coverage would make the entire city an Internet “hot spot” and allow for wireless use.

Supervisor Jake McGoldrick said he’s concerned that a profit-driven Wi-Fi network would result in poor service, saying the free service would be outdated and poor and comparing it to an “old 1972 car with 258,000 miles on it.”

He called for a hearing Monday to explore other alternatives to the Earthlink-Google deal, now being negotiated by the city Department of Telecommunications and Information Services. “The major deficiency in the DTIS is they really failed to give a fair comparison with a municipal system,” McGoldrick said. “They were only looking at contracting this out and so we have to fill that gap.”

Ron Vinson, the chief administrative officer of DTIS, said when exploring Wi-Fi options The City was struggling with a deficit and could not afford to pay for a network estimated to cost between $15 million and $20 million.

“The private company takes all the risk of this ever-changing technology,” Vinson said.

Chris Sacca, head of Google’s special initiatives, said establishing a Wi-Fi network on the scale San Francisco envisions is “prohibitively costly” for a city. “To build and operate on this scale is no small challenge,” Sacca said. “That is why we partnered with Earthlink.”

The City Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee will also conduct hearings over the next four months to figure out if The City can “provide very low-cost or free Wi-Fi and keep it in the hands of The City,” McGoldrick said. It’s unclear when the Board of Supervisors will make a final decision on the Wi-Fi contract, but the network is slated to go up in 2007.

The Google and Earthlink partnership beat out five other competitors vyingfor the city contract.

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