SF wi-fi idea draws mixed response

Some San Francisans are indifferent to the plan

While backers say free wi-fi in San Francisco will bring a wide range of benefits and critics fear a Googlistic Big Brother, ordinary locals and visitors to the city have another take on the controversy — or don’t even know about it.

The city is now negotiating with EarthLink and Google on the terms of a deal that would let EarthLink operate a paid service at about 1Mbit/s and let Google offer a free 300Kbit/s service. Both would run on a network that uses city assets, such as light poles, where access points would be mounted. In turn, the city administrator would benefit from greater connectivity for public safety and city employees.

But some ordinary San Franciscans say they weren’t even aware of the issue — a surprise given the heavy coverage of the debate over US cities getting involved in broadband delivery. Others have strong opinions on both sides.

If EarthLink delivered its service for about US$20 (NZ$33) per month, a price the company has suggested in the past, it would be worth looking into as an alternative to wired broadband, says Paul Groth, an architectural historian who lives in the city and says he pays about US$35 per month for a DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) service. But the network also could deliver social benefits, Groth says.

“The more people you can give access to the better,” Groth says. He likes city contracts with wi-fi providers to other public-private partnerships, such as streetcar lines and power companies.

“Treating broadband as a utility is a step up,” Groth says. However, he sees a risk of corruption in such arrangement.

Wireless internet access throughout cities is inevitable, and carriers should get in on it, says Dan Irvine, a hedge-fund salesman from Denver who was visiting San Francisco on business.

Location-based advertising for nearby businesses could be a great source of revenue, Irvine says. As it is, many people already get their broadband for free by tapping in to their neighbours’ wi-fi, he says.

Even within a high-tech hub like San Francisco, technology means different things to different people. One woman who works near the city’s civic centre hadn’t heard of the wi-fi plan and doesn’t care because her employer already provides her with a high-speed wireless data service. A man waiting at a bus stop in the North Beach area was aware of the plan but hasn’t paid it much mind because he doesn’t own a computer.

Free internet access would be a good step towards bringing disadvantaged groups into the technology mainstream, says Nancy Record, who works at a day-care centre in the city. But it would still leave the challenge of getting equipment into the hands of those who can’t afford it, she says.

The fact that the city needs to spearhead the project raises alarm bells for one visitor.

“Something’s not exactly right here,” says Kelly Wickoff, a former telecom engineer visiting from Redding, California. If there was enough demand to make the service viable, the private sector would build it, he says. But the proposed combination of government and corporate involvement makes him doubly wary of unscrupulous deals.

He thinks the service might be useful for people who don’t mind carrying around a notebook PC or other device. For example, with localised search capability, a tourist could find a nearby comedy club on the spur of the moment. However, Wickoff says internet access may not be the highest priority outdoors on a sunny summer’s day.

“Sometimes you want to get away from that.”

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