SF's Market Street Wi-Fi Marks Shift In City's Tech Approach

Unbound by old leadership or restrictive outside relationships, San Francisco built a free-to-use public Wi-Fi network on Market Street -- and they did it their way.

by / December 18, 2013

San Francisco’s free public Wi-Fi network on Market Street was announced on Dec. 16, after a noticeable absence of promotion before the offering.

This approach in delivering a service to the public without promoting the fact that the city was making good on its promise to deliver is San Francisco's attempt to rebuild trust in its relationship with the public, CIO Marc Touitou explained. It’s also a demonstration of Touitou’s style as a new public-sector CIO.

The city’s new 50 Mbps Wi-Fi network is a first part of a larger project to offer widespread public Wi-Fi access throughout the city. An official announcement of such a project has not been released, but Touitou made it clear after being hired in April that offering free public Wi-Fi for the city was a high priority for him, and that he would not accept delayed timelines or broken promises.

Thus far, Touitou has delivered on his promise to spend less time making promises and to focus on getting things done. The Market Street Wi-Fi network and a Google-funded project slated to bring Wi-Fi to 31 city parks by Summer 2014 both come after years of stalled projects and broken promises by the city when it comes to large IT projects.

“Previous leadership announced some things that never really came true,” Touitou said. “There were a number of initiatives that were fragmented at best, so the idea is to bring the city together on connectivity and make sure that we don’t just do something tactical. The infrastructure, all the assets that we leverage, we wanted to bring something fast and rather than talk talk talk about it, we wanted to do it.”

Comparing Citywide Wi-Fi

Earlier this month, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the deployment of a Wi-Fi network scheduled for completion in 2014 that will be free for all users within a 95-city-block coverage area in Harlem -- where approximately 80,000 New Yorkers live, including 13,000 public housing residents. 

And on the West Coast, the Los Angeles City Council in early November approved a request for proposals to build a citywide Wi-Fi network, according to the Los Angeles Times.

And both cities have admirable goals as far as their public Wi-Fi plans, said San Francisco CIO Mark Touitou, but comparing their projects to San Francisco’s -- which is already in the works -- is like comparing apples and oranges, because their projects aren’t completed.

It’s one thing to say you’re going to build something, he said, but until those cities issue RFPs, get responses from vendors, and actually complete the projects, Touitou says he’s reserving judgment.

A vendor agreement with AT&T that expired earlier this year was one reason the city was able to complete this project on time and for just $500,000, Touitou said. Wireless provider Ruckus donated hardware to the project, while a local company called Layer42 Networks contributed a dedicated gigabit backbone to the installation. The Market Street Wi-Fi network shows what the city is capable of when it’s allowed to do things its own way, Touitou said.

Market Street presented a challenge more difficult than what the city will likely find elsewhere, Touitou added, so if they were able to deploy this project on schedule, there’s no reason they won’t be able to install Wi-Fi in other major corridors quickly, too.

Despite the relatively quick delivery, it was not without its challenges, like the fact that market street is not just a public space, but also is a densely-populated space.

“We had to solve a number of mundane problems like, ‘Ugh, there’s not enough space for one more cable to go through that pipe,’ some of the conduits were old, that kind of thing,” he said, adding that solving these problems involved either taking different routes or installing new conduits. But the city’s new “dig once” policy, which requires new conduit to be installed with any new excavation project, should help to avoid these kinds of problems in the future, Touitou said.

There have been no problems with the new network thus far, which he said was to be expected because the city spent the last two months testing it.

Now that that project is done, the city’s IT focus is on bringing Wi-Fi to 31 parks using the $608,000 provided by Google. Feasibility assessments will begin soon, and the project will be completed by summer 2014, Touitou said -- or sooner, if possible.

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

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