August 17, 2005

San Francisco Moves Forward on Wi-Fi Plan

SAN FRANCISCO -- The city of San Francisco wants ideas for making the entire 49-square mile city a free - or at least cheap - Wi-Fi zone.

Taking a step toward bridging the so-called digital divide between the tech-savvy and people who can't afford computers, the city government on Tuesday issued guidelines for a plan to "ensure universal, affordable wireless broadband access for all San Franciscans."

The invitation, extended to nonprofit groups and businesses that could eventually bid on the project, puts San Francisco among a handful of major U.S. cities tackling the technological and political challenges of offering Internet service to its residents on such a wide scale.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom said the city is soliciting ideas for an ambitious system that would put Wi-Fi in the hands of people whether they are working in a high-rise office tower, riding on a cable car or living in a low-income housing project.

Dell and other computer makers already have pledged thousands of computers that will be given to residents of poorer neighborhoods, he said.

"We are going to be able to wire the city in a dynamic way so the entire city is a hot zone, but we are also going to be able to provide equipment in an unprecedented way," Newsom said.

The mayor said that creating a network that is "not just cost-competitive with existing service providers, but substantially cheaper or free" tops his priority list for the project.

Philadelphia, the first big city to work on extending wireless Internet service throughout the city, is poised to choose a vendor to design, deploy and maintain a system that will cover the city's 135 square miles. Portland, Ore., Minneapolis, Charleston, S.C., and Orlando, Fla., also are at various stages in the same process.

A number of small U.S. cities - including Lompoc, Hermosa Beach and Cupertino in California - have created citywide wireless networks that are accessible to the public either for free or for a lower fee than is available commercially.

According to an annual ranking compiled by chip maker Intel Corp. (INTC), San Francisco already ranks just behind Seattle as the nation's most "unwired city" in America, thanks to a ubiquity of cafes and restaurants that offer Wi-Fi.

Last year, the city erected antennas to make one of its most popular tourist destinations, Union Square, a free hot spot, and three others are set to go up later this year. Responses to the city's request for information are due in six weeks and Newsom said he hopes to have the citywide Wi-Fi plan at least partly "manifested" within six months.

"Cities are starting to realize this is not a 'nice to have' anymore," said Paul Butcher, Intel's state and local government marketing manager. "To operate efficiently as a government, to enable business to compete and provide adequate resources to cities, you pretty much have to do this."