San Francisco Mayor Wants Broadband Internet Access for All City Residents

The wireless network is part of the larger Tech Connect initiative to provide technology and training to low-income residents to help them take advantage of the opportunities offered by the Internet

by / August 22, 2005
Last week, Mayor Gavin Newsom announced the first steps in a plan to to make San Francisco "the first city with a comprehensive wireless broadband initiative." Newsom's goal is to provide anyone in the city and county of San Francisco high speed Internet access wherever he or she is, "be it in park, a playground, be it on a fire engine or on the 35th story of a 100-story building." And he wants to do it in a way that "would significantly reduce the reality and stress of this 'Digital Divide.'"

The city is already experiencing a high level of demand for the wireless Internet access it provides at the public library and in Union Square.

"What is happening at [the city's public library] and at Union Square is that we are up to around 10,000 people using these two sites on a monthly basis without doing any real marketing," according to Chris Vein, acting director for the city's Department of Telecommunications and Information Services. "The need exists, the need is real and we need to be expanding that to the rest of the city."

The mayor expects the cost of the network to do that will be $10--18 million to complete.

Unique to San Francisco's approach to the idea of building and maintaining a city-owned network is that it fits into the city's larger Tech Connect program. Tech Connect is a program where the city partners with local not-for-profit organizations to provide low-income residents with computer equipment and training on how to use the technology. The program, Newsom explained is "an ongoing effort not only to provide wireless technology and access to broadband at a free or substantially reduced cost, but also to make sure people have the mechanisms to actually utilize that technology."

Another part of Tech Connect is the San Francisco community Bee Hive, which the city has built in partnership with One Economy, a national non-profit that helps low-income individuals gain access to technology. According to Newsom the Bee Hive is a resource that "actually navigates and accesses sites of importance and interest to the people of San Francisco so they are actually getting something out of it."

The Bee Hive provides information on doing a variety of things in the city such as finding a job, getting around or getting involved in the local community. For example, "if you're a parent and you want to find information about affordable health care for your family, you're interested in finding information about local schools or finding an alternative to pay day lending and check cashing institutions, that information and those resources are available online," explained Amy Critchett, director of media and marketing for One Economy.

The city has issued a request for information and comment on the broadband network which will be open for vendor response and public comment until September 28. The city wants the best and brightest ideas from the private sector, the public sector and the non-profit sector on how it can provide affordable universal access to the people of San Francisco.

Not only do city officials want to provide affordable or free broadband Internet access in public places, but they want to provide it to small businesses and to residents in their homes as well, regardless of the neighborhood they live in. The city also plans to use the network to enhance the productivity of city government employees and for enhancing public safety.

In its request for information, the city requres the network have a throughput of at least 1 Mbps and uses at least 802.11b/g technology. The city is also requiring the network be scalable in order to avoid becoming obsolete.

"It is my goal that every single Housing Authority unit in San Francisco is wired--to the extent that that's hardwired or, in this case, 'softwired' through wireless technology, but it's go to be wired into something," Newsom added.

Newsom said the city is open to a number of models of how to fund and maintain the citywide network.

"We keep an open mind as to whether or not this should be a municipally-owned system, or whether or not it should be a public-private partnership that would advance the needs of maintaining the system," Newsom said.

The city wants to avoid a situation in which the network becomes a burden of "tens of millions of dollars" to the city without the ability to upgrade the network to new technology as it becomes available, he said.

"We've identified the sites, we know where the equipment is, we know what to do, we just have to do it and we either have to find a partner to do it or we're going to have to write a big check. And that's really the question we're going to answer," he added.

The mayor expects to complete the project within the next few months.

City officials and potential partners are ready for any opposition they might face along the way.

"We are actually doing this in a strategic way to prepare for the prospect any litigation," Newsom said. "I know that the private sector--any potential partners--are also aware of the pratfalls of doing this and are ready for that potential fight if indeed it happens."

In addition, city officials see the request for information and comment they issued for this wireless broadband network as "an opportunity for people who have been saying they may not like the process to stand up and be part of the process or stand out of the way," Susan Leal, general manager of San Francisco's Public Utilities Commission, said.