SF sets Wi-Fi vote, but deal may fade

San Francisco will vote on a nonbinding ballot measure regarding free citywide Wi-Fi in November, but the city's deal with Earthlink may be dead before then

San Francisco voters will be able to vote in November for free citywide Wi-Fi, a concept that the city has been working toward for three years but that may be dead in the water by the time of the election.

The vote will have no legal effect and won't address the particular deal the combined city and county government has worked out with EarthLink. But the initiative, placed on the ballot late Friday by Mayor Gavin Newsom and Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, does try to address some criticisms of the EarthLink deal.

Under the contract negotiated by the city and EarthLink, the Atlanta Internet service provider would build a network at no cost to the city and lease access to light poles and other facilities for mounting of access points. EarthLink would sell a residential service for about $20 per month, and Google would offer a free service over the same network, probably supported by advertising.

But the plan has run into stiff opposition from activists and some members of the Board of Supervisors. They have attacked what they see as a bad deal that ties the city's hands, a lack of user privacy, too little effort to bring poor residents onto the Internet, and no guarantee the system will actually reach everyone.

And since negotiations were finished in January and the issue headed toward a Board of Supervisors vote, EarthLink has twice raised alarms about its nationwide municipal Wi-Fi network business. Most recently, late last month the company said it would delay any new buildouts until it knows it can get an acceptable return on them. For its future networks -- which may or may not refer to the agreed San Francisco deal -- EarthLink said it will ask cities to buy services themselves. San Francisco isn't ready to do that, according to Peskin.

The "declaration of policy" that will go before the voters in November calls for a Wi-Fi network that will reach all parts of the city equally and provide free Internet access for all residents, businesses, institutions, and visitors. Whoever the city contracts with for the network should prevent unauthorized sharing of personal data and unnecessarily keeping information about users' locations, the initiative says.

It recommends that the city "initially" provide the network through a public-private partnership that minimizes financial risk to the city. The contract should set a reasonable term to avoid a franchise arrangement, the initiative says. In debate on the EarthLink deal, some supervisors have voiced alarm over the prospect of another franchise like the one the city has with cable provider Comcast, which they said is hard for the city to break. Peskin has proposed amendments to the EarthLink deal that would let the city buy back the network after eight years.

The ballot measure is almost sure to pass, but by the time it does, EarthLink may have pulled out, said Craig Settles, an independent municipal network consultant in Oakland, California. The green light might just put the city in the awkward position of having to find another similar deal -- in an industry that has realized the folly of offering to build networks for free, he said.

"You're basically drumming up enthusiasm for something that the market says it won't provide," Settles said. If the city won't step up as an anchor tenant, committing itself to buying access for government use, it will have a hard time finding vendors to build the network, he said. However, a full survey of the city's departments now would probably find some that could use Wi-Fi to improve their operations, possibly even without great investment.

"To dismiss anchor tenancy out of hand is a bit shortsighted," Settles said.

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