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City of San Francisco Wi-Fi alternatives considered

Supervisors Bevan Dufty, Jake McGoldrick and Fiona Ma, at the City Neighborhood and Services Committe hearing yesterday to discuss alternative City WI/FI solutions.
Photo(s) by Luke Thomas

By Aldrich M. Tan

May 1, 2006

The City Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee heard concerns from various internet providers regarding the proposed San Francisco municipal wireless fidelity program.

In March, the city awarded the contract for the development of the city's municipal wireless program to Earthlink and Google. The intent of Monday's hearing was to discuss alternative digital infrastructures, including but not limited to existing wireless networks, copper, cable and fiber.

"It's important that we have this discussion in a public meeting because public assets will be used in the development of the program," Supervisor Jake McGoldrick said.

Supervisor Jake McGoldrick sponsored the committee item to examine alternative solutions to fulfill San Francisco push for city-wide Wi/Fi.

James Chafee, City Hall gadfly, agreed with McGoldrick.

"Wireless internet today is just as important today as the horse and buggy was during its time period," Chafee said.

Tim Pozar, Chief Operations Officer for UnitedLayer, a community wireless network that supplies bandwidth to the city, expressed concern about being unable to co-exist with the city program and how it would be challenging for other wireless companies to enter the city's market.

Tim Pozar

A municipal wireless program would be challenging to construct because the standard wireless technology was not designed to work with long distances, Pozar said. The wireless frequency, 802.11b, could interfere with 25 other types of spectrum users, including radio operators using 100 watt transmitters.

"I can't tell a radio operator to stop running because I can't connect to the municipal wireless internet," Pozar said.

Ralf Muehlen, representative of SFLAN, a nonprofit commuity wireless program in San Francisco, said that the proposed wireless contract with Earthlink and Google could also have privacy concerns.

"When you are searching for something with the new wi-fi, they will know who you are and exploit you for advertising," Muehlen said.

Bruce Wolfe proposed another alternative to wireless: fiber-optic lines, a technology that uses glass or plastic threads to transmit data rather than the traditional metal communications lines.

"Fiber works well and has a lot of growth," Wolfe said. "It is very reliable with a 99.88 percent upload time and very fast data services, including voice and video."

Bruce Wolfe

The technology is already available in the city, Muehlen said. The Proposition A bond project in 2001 enabled the City College of San Francisco to create a 23 mile fiber ring through the city which connects the city college's campuses. An additional 13.5 miles is available through the public safety ring.

Fiber optics projects are taking place in Utah, Amsterdam Japan, and Palo Alto, Wolfe said.

Access to Palo Alto's fiber optic network is only available mostly to the city's business community, according to the City of Palo Alto Utilities' Web site. A customer must "light" the fiber by adding voice, data or video equipment to the end of their licensed fibers and transmit information between locations.

Palo Alto initially approved the fiber-to-the-home trial in November 2000 but in mid-December 2005, the City Council terminated the trial, according to the City of Palo Alto Utilities' Web site.

The Palo Alto City Council recommended for the staff to develop a request of proposals in terms of any public entities interested in pursuing the citywide deployment of the fiber-to-the-home trial this January, according to the CPAU Web site.

Carlos Rios, president of nextWLAN Corporation said the biggest problem of Earthlink's program is its lack of coverage. The wireless network's coverage would consist of t-coverage areas.

"That's not free wi-fi for all," Rios said. "That's free wi-fi for a few."

Carlos Rios explains there will be coverage problems
with the Google/Earthlink Wi/Fi proposal.

Rios proposed a city-owned indoor wireless network that would employ wireless servers called MicroNodes throughout the city that would connect directly to DSL lines.

The MicroNodes would cost $100 each and the company is expecting to upgrade its equipment in a year, Rios said.

Ron Vinson, chief administrative officer for the Department of Telecommunications and Information Services, thanked everyone who spoke. He said the department will continue to look into the issues as it discusses its contract with Earthlink.

"We want the best possible deal for everyone in the city," Vinson said. "40 percent of our population still does not have internet connectivity. Wi-fi would be the most efficient means in order to bring the digital inclusion to a level laying field."

Ron Vinson

The major issue in incorporating the fiber-to-the-home program is its cost, Vinson said.

"We know from experience that the local cable companies require at least 900 miles of cable fibers," Vinson said. "That could cost millions of dollars."

The idea of utilizing the city-owned fiber optic network is still under consideration, Vinson said. It is a project that will take several years to put together, based on its economic feasibility.

Andre Chan, a graduate student at UC Berkeley, said it was important for the city to pursue the wireless project. According to statistics of the latest U.S. Census Bureau, internet access for local nonwhite is 56 percent compared to 72 percent of white residents.

"By deploying a wireless network throughout the city, these people will be helped the most," Chan said.

McGoldrick said the dialogue was productive.

"I think we're on the verge of something major," McGoldrick said. "I just want to make sure that the Board of Supervisors is educated enough when we do have to make a decision about this program."

In October 2004, Mayor Gavin Newsom announced that he intended to provide free wireless access for the city during his state of the city address. nextWLAN and SF Metro Connect, comprising of Seakay, Cisco and IBM, were among the bidders.

In March, the city announced that it selected Google and Earthlink to build the city's wireless network. Philadelphia and Milpitas, Calif. also selected Earthlink to developed similar municipal wireless programs.




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