Google Faces Rivals for San Francisco Wi-Fi Project

As San Francisco leaders near a decision on who should build and operate a citywide Wi-Fi network, an experienced municipal wireless provider and a nonprofit group working with two IT heavy-hitters appear to remain in the fray along with Google and partner EarthLink.

The City and County of San Francisco is expected by early April to announce its choice from among responders to a request for proposals (RFPs) that the city put out last year. The list has been narrowed to three plans, and the final choice may be unveiled any day now, according to Anne-Marie Fowler, a principal at SF Metro Connect, a collaborative project by Cisco Systems, IBM, and local nonprofit SeaKay. MetroFi, which already operates a wireless data network in Silicon Valley, also is among the three finalists, according MetroFi Chief Executive Officer Chuck Haas.

Google and EarthLink have not been told they are out of the running, said EarthLink spokesman Jerry Grasso. City officials could not be reached for comment.

The RFP calls for high-speed wireless Internet access that would be available outdoors virtually throughout the city and in most rooms indoors. Like other U.S. cities, San Francisco is pushing wireless in hopes of generating economic activity, bridging the "digital divide" between those who can and can't afford traditional broadband, and improving city government and public safety communications in the bargain.

Google and EarthLink's proposal, which would include a free service supported by targeted and location-specific advertising, has drawn wide attention, including criticism from some privacy groups.

National Trend

But the other plan with industry giants behind it may be the start of a national trend: The SF Metro Connect backers said earlier this week they want to pursue the same strategy in other cities.

SeaKay, founded in San Francisco in 2004, operates neighborhood technology centers that provide IT training and resources. SF Metro Connect envisions a nonprofit model supported largely by individual and corporate contributions.

The organization would build a Wi-Fi network using Cisco equipment and offer free access to it at speeds of at least 1 megabit per second, Fowler said. Communications for city government, education, and other official uses could be given priority, but there is no plan to offer a higher tier of service for sale. No user information would be collected, she said.

Third parties, including carriers and cable operators, could pay SF Metro Connect for the right to offer additional services over the network. For those services, such as video and audio, the third parties could make users log in and pay a fee, Fowler said. Meanwhile, SF Metro Connect would help communities in the city develop their own portals for neighborhood information and communication. IBM would contribute technology for setting up those portals, she said.

The other apparent finalist, MetroFi, runs an outdoor mesh network in Sunnyvale, Cupertino, and Santa Clara, and it proposes a similar plan for San Francisco. Customers could get free service by opting to receive ads or paying about $20 per month for access. The network would detect where a user was located at any time and deliver ads local to that neighborhood, said MetroFi's Haas. The ads also could be keyed to what type of Web sites the user might be visiting, he said. But MetroFi wouldn't associate any location or surfing data with a user's identity, nor would it save any of that information, Haas said.

Another company that responded to the RFP, NextWLAN, hopes to partner with the winner and provide indoor coverage that it believes the outdoor networks won't be able to deliver. The Los Gatos, California, startup hopes to build a network of residential access points, said President Carlos Rios.

NextWLAN would make and sell Wi-Fi access points with routing and other features. About one of 10 of the consumers who bought a NextWLAN box would get DSL service paid for by NextWLAN and configure the device as a router. Other boxes nearby would act as repeaters so neighbors could share the service, which would be free.

Representatives of AT&T, San Francisco's major DSL provider, have expressed interest in the proposal because it could lead to more DSL connections, Rios said. The free wireless service would be limited to a 384 kbps Internet speed, so users wouldn't be sharing a full DSL experience, he said. AT&T could not immediately provide comment.

To comment on this article and other PCWorld content, visit our Facebook page or our Twitter feed.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon