Let the experts run citywide WiFi
Monday, May 14, 2007
Imagine if you no longer had access to the Internet. How would it change your life - how you do business, how you shop, how you communicate with family and friends? Now stop to think that 30 percent of San Franciscans are exactly in that boat.
They do not have access or cannot afford the technology that is available. Most of these citizens who are shut out of the World Wide Web are senior citizens or poor. Many of them are school-age children. Mayor Gavin Newsom's plan to remedy this disparity and bring citywide free WiFi access to these residents is being heard today at a hastily called special hearing of the San Francisco Board of Supervisor's Budget and Finance Committee. Scheduling this hearing on a significant contract with little notice and without the final provisions and SFPUC sign-offs in place certainly can be construed as needlessly politicizing this project. That is not only irresponsible, it is a shame.
After undertaking a thorough and transparent planning process, the mayor and the city attorney hammered out a contract that would provide WiFi citywide -- at no cost to residents -- through a historic public-private partnership with EarthLink and Google. With approval from the Board of Supervisors, the service can be up and running before the end of the year.
Now, surprisingly, the proposal faces stiff opposition from a few members of the board. Their rationale for opposing the contract? In due time, the city may -- and I emphasize, "may" -- develop the expertise, technology and resources to build and manage a municipally owned WiFi system. In other words, these supervisors are ignoring the needs of their own constituents in favor of a pipe dream that may or may not come to fruition.
When the public advocacy group, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, recently analyzed the WiFi issue, it found that Google and EarthLink, both recognized worldwide as leaders in WiFi technology, would likely do a much better job administering a WiFi network than the City of San Francisco. No surprise there.
Mayor Newsom said earlier this year: "This agreement to bring free universal wireless Internet access to San Francisco is a critical step in bridging the digital divide that separates too many communities from the enormous benefits of technology. Ubiquitous WiFi will change how residents access education, social services and economic opportunities ... This will make city government more effective and accountable to the people we serve." I agree.
San Francisco has an unprecedented opportunity to build a new model for Internet access across the country and demonstrate our unique capacity to provide this dynamic and essential technology to all who live here. It is well understood that the Internet will continue to grow as a primary means of communications, education and commerce. Expanding its use will certainly fuel our continued economic competitiveness. San Francisco's controller has confirmed the WiFi proposal will favorably impact the local economy and save consumers between $9 million and $18 million annually.
The terms of the agreement protect users' privacy and security, provide consumer choice through open access, provide revenue to the city and guarantee free basic service to every resident. Not only do we agree, but in a recent San Francisco Chamber of Commerce poll (www.sfchamber.com), city voters, by a margin of almost 3-to-1 said, they support the mayor's proposal.
It's time for San Franciscans to make their voices heard in the corridors of City Hall. Today's hearing will be the first of a series of public hearings on the WiFi proposal. Let the Board of Supervisors know you support free WiFi for all San Franciscans and the negotiated agreement to get the project going today. Stop the politics -- San Franciscans expect and deserve more.
Steve Falk is the president and CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.