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.

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