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Bad reception for free Wi-Fi

Iconoclastic, tech-savvy San Franciscans don't buy into a plan to offer wireless Internet access.

February 19, 2007|Michelle Quinn and James S. Granelli | Times Staff Writers

SAN FRANCISCO — In Los Angeles, officials want to blanket the city with wireless Internet access that's affordable to the masses. But their counterparts here can't even give it away.

In his October 2004 State of the City address, Mayor Gavin Newsom pledged that his administration would "not stop until every San Franciscan has access to free wireless Internet service."

Newsom forged a plan with Google Inc. and EarthLink Inc., under which the companies would build a Wi-Fi network offering two tiers of service: a free one, plastered with online advertisements, and a faster version without ads for $21.95 a month. They would pay San Francisco to put signal-beaming antennas on its light poles.

But in a city where suspicion of corporate interests flows as thick as the fog, the plan is meeting resistance at every turn.

Dissecting every bit and byte, techies call the free service too slow and are pushing for alternatives. Privacy advocates fret that the Internet companies could track users' every move.

At one of the marathon meetings to debate the proposal, a citizen suggested that Google and EarthLink fork over more money -- to supplement the electricity bills of San Franciscans who use their computers more as a result of the free access. Another suggested that Google use its vehicles to shuttle children to the local zoo.

More than two years later, the project hasn't gotten off the ground. Newsom signed a contract with the Internet providers in January. But the Board of Supervisors, whose approval is required, last week declined even to consider the deal, deciding instead to investigate turning the project into a city-owned public utility.

"We never thought it would be so hard to spend money in a city -- or such a hard sell to give something away," EarthLink Vice President Cole Reinwand said.

More than 300 municipalities across the country are planning or operating Wi-Fi service. Los Angeles joined the pack last week when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced plans for a citywide Wi-Fi system in 2009.

Most of those cities have escaped the political battles that are plaguing San Francisco. But many have been bedeviled by technical problems, including those caused by hilly terrain, tall buildings and even interference from garage-door openers.

In Lompoc, Calif., for example, a city-owned project struggled for a year to get going because the equipment and software didn't work properly. Lompoc had to increase the number of antennas in some areas and lower their position on light poles to limit interference from cordless phones and other household gadgets.

"For a public works project with new technology, a year's delay isn't bad," said W. Mark McKibben, a Chatsworth consultant who oversaw the project until May. "It's all bleeding-edge technology. It's painful any way you look at it."

Free wireless Internet access has become the populist project of the decade. It's envisioned as a way to overcome the so-called digital divide, boost local economies and improve public services such as police communications.

In Los Angeles, the technical hurdles will be high. Its 498 square miles and 3.7 million residents dwarf San Francisco's 50 square miles and 740,000 residents.

"Boy, we are big," said Charles Golvin of Los Angeles, an analyst at Forrester Research. "That's a lot of territory to cover in two years. We've had cellular networks here for years, and many people will be happy to tell you they don't have cellphone service yet."

Villaraigosa offered only a broad outline that calls for a public-private partnership, in which companies would pay the installation and operating costs. Building the system could cost more than $60 million -- money the operators could try to recoup through online ads and sales of better services.

In April, San Francisco chose its plan from among six. Atlanta-based EarthLink would create a wireless network and charge customers $21.95 a month. Mountain View, Calif.-based Google planned to rent space on the network and offer a slower, ad-supported version free. Google is considering targeting ads by location so, for example, someone in Union Square searching the Web for a shoe store might see offers for nearby shops first.

But the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other advocates raised concerns about EarthLink's privacy policy. They also complained that Google's ability to track the whereabouts of network users could prove irresistible to law enforcement. (Google said people worried about such things could sign up using false names.)

Moreover, some citizens of this high-tech mecca aren't willing to settle for just any wireless connection, even if it's free. EarthLink's paid service is about three times faster than Google's free one.

The speed of the free service "is so 1997," said Ralf Muehlen, a software developer who runs a small free wireless network here and wants the city to push EarthLink for better technology. "I'm a techie. It's too slow for me."

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