San Francisco Weighs Wi-Fi Plans
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
San Francisco plans to set up free, universally available wireless access to the Internet, otherwise known as Wi-Fi. It isn't likely to be the first big city to do so; Philadelphia is further along in the process. But San Francisco's plan has created a lot of buzz. As NPR's Laura Sydell reports, that's because of a proposal from one very high-profile company.
LAURA SYDELL reporting:
San Francisco officials believe it's important for everyone to have access to the Internet. So late last summer, Mayor Gavin Newsom promised that he would find a way to blanket the city with free wireless. Chris Vien, the mayor's senior technology adviser, says they believe Internet access will spur economic growth and help low-income citizens move up the ladder.
Mr. CHRIS VIEN (Senior Technology Adviser to Mayor Newsom): If a person doesn't have that access, that limits their ability to grow, to get a better job, to do whatever that they may need to be doing in their life to be happy and successful.
SYDELL: Two dozen companies have made proposals to set up the free Wi-Fi network, among them, Motorola, Ericsson and EarthLink, which recently won a contract to set up Philadelphia's free wireless. And then there's Google, which seems to be everywhere these days: partnering with Sun Microsystems to create desktop software; digitizing libraries and experimenting with instant messaging and video. But setting up a Wi-Fi network?
Mr. CHRIS SACCA (Google): We think San Francisco can be a great test bed for the development of new applications, services, local advertising, all kinds of really cool community-based services.
SYDELL: Chris Sacca is part of the new business development group at Google. Sacca says what he's imagining is that people carrying portable wireless devices will be able to use Google to find what they need wherever they are.
Mr. SACCA: We recently acquired a small company called dodgeball that allows you to let your buddies and friends of friends in an area know where you are and what you're up to and invite them to come hang out with you.
SYDELL: More importantly for Google is it's an opportunity to sell and make lots of money from very localized ads. It might look something like this.
(Soundbite of traffic)
SYDELL: Say I'm walking down Market Street in San Francisco, and I think to myself, `I would like a cup of coffee,' and so I want to know where there is a good coffee place. I have a small device, it's connected to wireless, I look up `coffee' and, lo and behold, right nearby there's a Pete's Coffee.
Can I get a large cup of decaf?
Unidentified Woman: Anything else?
SYDELL: And a pumpkin ginger muffin.
Google's Sacca says even if they get the San Francisco contract, right now they have no intention of putting up networks elsewhere. But some Google watchers don't quite believe that. Paul Saffo of the non-profit think tank Institute for the Future believes Google may be creating a new model for supplying Internet access that could challenge the cable and telephone companies' fee-based systems.
Mr. PAUL SAFFO (Institute for the Future): This is a money machine for Google. And, frankly, that's what's driving this shift, is there are people who have discovered they can offer for free what the phone companies can only charge you a lot of money for.
SYDELL: The cable and telephone companies have generally come out against cities offering free wireless, and in some states, their lobbying efforts have resulted in bans against municipal-run Wi-Fi. The big telecom companies have argued that government has no business setting up networks that compete with private business. But network providers are not opposing the San Francisco plan because it involves a private company. Andrew Johnson of Comcast thinks customers will continue to use a cable Internet connection because it's better.
Mr. ANDREW JOHNSON (Comcast): When our customers connect to the Internet, they're going to be using the most reliable and powerful high-speed connection around. So we're watching with interest the Google Wi-Fi proposal, and certainly we'll continue to pay attention to their entry into the marketplace, as we do all the competitors.
SYDELL: Indeed, Google is only promising to offer a speed of 300 kilobits per seconds as compared to Comcast's 4 megabits per second. And San Francisco's tech adviser Chris Vien says there are challenges for Google or anyone who tries to set up a wireless network in San Francisco. This is the city where little cable cars go halfway to the stars.
Mr. VIEN: There are people who live in, you know, hills and dales, valleys, and so the system has to be able to reach everybody. And that creates a certain technology challenge.
SYDELL: San Francisco has not yet decided which company will get the contract, and isn't likely to make a decision for a few weeks. But there are signs that Google wants to try this experiment, whether it's in the tech-savvy hills of San Francisco or someplace a little flatter. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.
BLOCK: This is NPR, National Public Radio.