No WiFi For You

San Francisco land of the nuts and fruits. I can only say that because I live here and consider many of them my close friends, but if you were a fly on the wall at last night’s EarthLink Google WiFi meeting you would know what I mean.

Over the last two years, San Francisco has expressed an interest in bringing wireless internet access to the entire city, but two years later we are still arguing about how to get this done. It started in September 2004, when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved a resolution allocating $300,000 for the city to investigate various wifi options so that they could bring affordable internet access to the entire city. In January of 2005, Mayor Gavin Newsom used his state of the city address to show his committment to free wifi by declaring that “we will not stop until every San Franciscan has access to free wireless Internet service.”

Over the next year, the city studied the various issues associated with bringing free Wifi to the city and by December of 2005, the list of possible vendors had been narrowed down to 7 companies who offered formal proposals to the city. In April of 2006, the mayor announced that they had selected EarthLink and Google to help build and run the network at no cost to the city. At that time a lot of excitement and buzz was generated by the possibility of the citizens of San Francisco having free WiFi.

Unfortunately, as with a lot of things in San Francisco, politics once again seems to have derailed something that could have been so great.

Despite the announcement made last April free WiFi instead has turned out to be vaporware thus far with Google and Earthlink discovering that dealing with the local San Francisco political scene is about as fun as being set up on a blind date with Mike Tyson after being rubbed down in meat sauce.

The lunacy of San Francisco politics can take several forms and town hall meetings are sure to attract some of San Francisco’s craziest nut jobs. While I was surprised not to see San Francisco’s representative from the 12 galaxies, Frank Chu, attend the meeting, I did get to see Chris Sacca from Google face a parade of activist oddballs who neither understood technology nor the positive social impact that free wifi could bring to some of the city’s most disadvantaged citizens.

At the meeting, Sacca did an excellent job or remaining calm and explaining the technology in language that anyone could understand, still these local political gadflies seemed to feel that EarthLink and Google providing free WiFi to the citizens was akin to killing kittens because, they attacked Sacca with a venom that was absolutely shocking.

Some of the crazier demands that were suggested at the meeting included a “requirement” for every San Francisco renter to sign a lease addendum with their landlords before being allowed to install a WiFi card in their PC, forcing Google to agree to transport kids back and forth to the Zoo in their Google busses and a requirement for EarthLink to pay the electrical costs for running computers in order to prevent brownouts.

Now if Google and EarthLink were receving public funds from the city or if the city was going to have to pay for the costs associated with running this network, I could understand why people would be so concerned. But why should Google and EarthLink be held up and extorted by local politicians, being forced to give in to any number of demands when all they want to do is give people free WiFi.

The internet is truly one of the most amazing technological advancements in the last 100 years. The ability to connect digitally to the entire world has transformed every single aspect of my life. When I needed to find a new apartment in San Francisco, I saved money by using Craigslist to find a great place. When I had worthless junk left over after I moved, I’ve been able to use EBay in order to have a much more effective digital garage sale. When I need access to any form of information I can use services like Google to find it. If I don’t want to pay for cable TV I’m able to use YouTube as a replacement. In short, I can’t think of a single area of my life where the internet hasn’t had an impact in one form or another and it’s the power of this technology that makes the idea of free WiFi so powerful.

Despite all of the advancement in technology, San Franicisco, perhaps more then any other city faces a significant digital gap between those who have access to technology and those who do not. By giving Comcast an exclusive license to provide broadband connectivity to their citizens, the San Francisco board of Directors have kept the poor from being able to have access to the same opportunities that those who can afford $40 a month for high speed access.

When you go online, it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, all that matters is the quality of your ideas and your ability to be innovative.

The poor in San Francisco have the most to benefit from free wifi, more then anyone else.

With free wifi San Franiciscan’s will be able to set up businesses on Craigslist. They can set up blogs through free blogspot accounts and allow their voices to be heard. They can use services like Skype to save money on their phone bills. Yet despite all of these benefits, San Francisco still seems to feel that unless Google and EarthLink are willing to jump through hoop after hoop after hoop that they somehow don’t deserve the right to provide a truly competitive internet option to San Francisco residents.

After listening to the concerns of citizens living in my neighborhood, it is unfortunate that EarthLink and Google will likely need to engage in some horse trading before this deal is done. So much for the free wifi by the end of 2006 that Mayor Gavin Newsom suggested that we might have. Instead of getting free wifi for Christmas this year, it looks like all the Scrooge McDuck’s on the board of Supervisors would rather Tiny Tim and myself get a lump of coal, and a 56k Netzero lump of crappy coal at that.

I can’t help but feel that a very dangerous precident is being set by local politicians who would rather play hardball with Google and EarthLink then provide free WiFi access to their citizens. Considering that San Francisco itself stands to gain millions in tax savings by not having to pay for their own government bandwidth costs, it seems ridiculous to me to try and continue to bargain for more when a competitive process has already taken place and two very reputable companies have stepped up, willing to put their own capital at risk to provide these services to our citizens.

It’s sad to have to see Google and EarthLink run around doing town hall meetings to already get an agreed upon deal done, being forced to grant new concessions which only serve to make free wifi in San Francisco even that much farther away.

If I were Google or EarthLink I’d be tempted to say screw you to the city of San Francisco, pick up my ball and take it to another city where I wasn’t treated like crap.

Although it’s almost certain that I won’t have free wifi by the end of this year at least between now and then, on November 7th, I’ll have an opportunity to try and vote my nitwit San Francisco Supervisor and representative out of office.