Google Describes its Wi-Fi Pitch

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Google wrote grandly of the importance of Wi-Fi in its recent proposal for free wireless here, but the search company downplayed its own potential role in delivering Internet service.

The proposal, one of 26 responses from interested companies to the city's request for information and comment on the idea of a citywide wireless Internet service, calls for Google to offer free Wi-Fi service to all residents and visitors. Advertisements targeted to users' locations would help support the project, in which other Internet service providers could also buy access wholesale and sell special services to end users, Google said.

"We believe that ubiquitous, affordable Internet access is a crucial aspect of humanitya??s social and economic development, and that working to supply free Wi-Fi is a major step in that direction," Google's response said. "However, we also believe that there will never be either one form of online connectivity or one company that exclusively provides it."

Previous Efforts

Some recent news reports have raised the specter of Google muscling in on existing broadband providers through widespread free wireless Internet access, using optical fiber capacity to create a national backbone network. In its proposal, Google referred to the fiber network, but in a more limited context.

"It takes thousands of computers and miles of fiber optic cable to globally deliver responses to your search queries within fractions of a second," according to Google. "We are confident that we can replicate the success of this infrastructure in the world of Wi-Fi for the city of San Francisco."

San Francisco could be a test bed for location-based applications and services delivered over Wi-Fi, the company notes. In fact, Google already is working with partners to provide free Wi-Fi in some parts of the city, and it offers access in a few locations near its Mountain View, California, headquarters.

Feeva, a software company in San Francisco that submitted its own response to the city's request, said it joined with Google and the city in March to create two free municipal wireless networks. Feeva's software can identify the location of a user on a wireless network, the device being used for access, and preferences provided by the user, according to its submission. By providing that data to advertisers -- while preserving the user's anonymity -- the service provider can generate enough revenue to cover the cost of the network, according to Feeva.

Google's Pitch

Google proposed to build an IEEE 802.11b/g Wi-Fi mesh network that delivers more than 1 megabit per second of capacity throughout the city. Anyone in the city could get access free at speeds as high as 300 kilobits per second, and Google or third parties could sell access at higher speeds, possibly as high as 3mbps. The 300kbps free service could be reached at street level, in the front room of a home or business, and on the first few floors of a building. Consumers might be encouraged to use customer premises equipment for better indoor reception, Google said. The city would give Google access to about 1900 lamp posts for placing access points, which would also be located on some buildings.

Google would also provide a separate virtual LAN for municipal agencies' own traffic to help ensure delivery and mitigate congestion. The city could use it free at 300kbps.

Wireless Facilities, an engineering, network services, and technical outsourcing company in San Diego, would design and deploy the network, according to Google's proposal. The network would eventually support 802.11n, the future wireless LAN technology designed for more than 100mbps throughput, once that is available, Google said.

Other Proposals

In October, San Francisco sought comments from the public as well as information from potential builders or operators of a service. After responses came in early this month, Mayor Gavin Newsom said a committee would study the input for about three weeks and present its findings to him. After that, the city will request actual plans and bids to provide a service. The city could adopt one proposal or put together its own plan from parts of several proposals. If the political process goes smoothly, a service could go live within five or six months, Newsom said.

Though Google's plan has drawn the most attention, other plans were also posted.

  • EarthLink, which recently won the contract to provide Philadelphia's municipal wireless network, proposed offering 1mbps residential broadband for less than $20 per month, with subsidies for lower cost service to economically disadvantaged residents. EarthLink would finance, own, deploy, and operate the network but also sell wholesale access to third-party providers.
  • MetroFi said it would build a Wi-Fi mesh network for a free, advertising-supported best-effort public service and a $19.95 per month, 1mbps symmetric residential broadband service. A pre-WiMax mesh network would provide service at up to 3mbps to businesses. Both networks would be built at no cost to the city.
  • Motorola would use Wi-Fi on unlicensed frequencies for consumer and public service access along with licensed frequencies for a public safety network that could be used in vehicles at more than 100 miles per hour. ISPs could buy access wholesale and offer a variety of services on the public network.
  • SFLan, a nonprofit project of the Internet Archive that has been providing free Wi-Fi in the city since 1998, proposed an "exchange" to connect many wireless ISPs and community organizations that provide service. Solar-powered access points with wireless backbone connections would allow the citywide local network to keep working at a reduced capacity in case of disaster, SFLan said. The city's exchange network could be paid for by general funds or a bond issue. It estimates an infrastructure covering 95 percent of the city would cost less than $1 million. It opposes the use of captive portals for signing on to the network, because it envisions non-Web uses such as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and video cameras.
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