October 4, 2005

S.F. mayor sees wireless service as basic right

By Eric Auchard

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom,
who became internationally known for his campaign a year ago to
legalize gay marriage, said on Monday he considered wireless
Internet access a fundamental right of all citizens.

Newsom told a news conference that he was bracing for a
battle with telephone and cable interests, along with state and
U.S. regulators, whom he said were looking to derail a campaign
by cities to offer free or low-cost municipal Wi-Fi services.

Wi-Fi is a short-range wireless technology that is now
built into most laptop computers and is increasingly offered on
handheld computers and certain mobile phones. Local officials
are mulling plans to blanket every nook and cranny of this
hilly city of 750,000 residents with Wi-Fi access.

"This is inevitable -- Wi-Fi. It is long overdue," Newsom
told a news conference at San Francisco's City Hall. "It is to
me a fundamental right to have access universally to
information," he said.

Officials said 24 proposals had been turned into the city
to deliver wireless Internet services, ranging from Web search
company Google Inc., Cingular, the No. 1 U.S. wireless carrier,
to Internet service provider EarthLink Inc..

Newsom told reporters he hoped to streamline the final
bidding process and choose a contractor to build the city-wide
wireless service in as little as five to six months.

But a series of public hearings and city approval
processes, as well as potential lawsuits by opponents, could
drag the process out far longer, he cautioned.

Making wireless access affordable to the entire population
of San Francisco was a vital step to differentiating the city
in order to make it more economically competitive on a state,
national and global level, Newsom said.

But the mayor also singled out the power of Wi-Fi as an
alternative network to provide emergency information to all
citizens in the event a natural disaster such as an earthquake
were to strike the city and knock out other communications.


Wireless access can be seen a basic right that should be
available not just to business professionals but also
lower-income citizens. "This is a civil rights issue as much as
anything else," Newsom said.

The mayor said he had no exact figures on how much it would
cost to build a wireless umbrella to cover the entire city, but
cited general estimates that have ranged from $8 million to $16
million for antennas and other gear.

"My intent is to have the taxpayers pay little or nothing,"
Newsom said of the municipal wireless project.

Chris Vein, director of telecommunication and information
services for the City of San Francisco declined to comment on
whether any of the participants planned to use an alternative
technology known as WiMAX, which provides higher speed wireless
service using fewer antennas.

One company, which Vein declined to name, has proposed an
advertising-supported plan for free wireless access, he said.
That company appeared to be Google. A Google spokesman on
Friday had confirmed that its Wi-Fi access proposal could be
funded through online advertising.

City officials said other companies submitting business
proposals for the municipal wireless access project included a
mix of network equipment suppliers, wireless service providers,
local start-ups and community wireless projects.

Potential bidders include Sweden's Ericsson, Motorola Inc.,
Canada's Nortel, Extreme Networks Inc. and two fixed wireless
suppliers, Israel's Alvarion Ltd. and WiLine of San Francisco.

Other names on the list were GigaBeam, Symbol Technologies
Inc., SkyTel, the old pager unit of MCI, which is due to be
acquired by phone company Verizon Communications.