Criticism Mounts in SF Muni Deal

If San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom seemed irrationally exuberant when he announced on Jan. 5 that the city and EarthLink Inc. (Nasdaq: ELNK) had come to an agreement on their planned municipal WiFi network, he has since come back to earth with a thud.

If anything the chorus of objections to the EarthLink deal is louder now than before the agreement was reached, and this week's release of an independent budget analyst's report, which both criticizes the contract as submitted and says a city-owned municipal network is a viable alternative, has added to the chances that the agreement will fail.

The city's 11-member Board of Supervisors has 180 days to vote on approving the contract, and several members have already voiced their opposition.

One of the earliest and most vaunted muni networking projects, the San Francisco deal has been held up for months by concerns over residents' privacy and whether the city was getting the best deal it could. In September, at the behest of the Board, the city government agreed to fund a study of a city-owned WiFi alternative to the EarthLink project. (Named as an original partner in the joint venture to build and manage the San Francisco system, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) was not named in the actual contract but still plans to offer a free Internet service over the network.) (See SF Net to Go Public?)

In his report, city budget analyst Harvey Rose wrote, “It may be fiscally feasible to build a municipally-owned wireless network.” A city-owned network could cost San Francisco taxpayers up to $1.44 million a year, he concluded -- or it could generate revenue of $923,000. Or anything in between. [Ed note: Did this guy train at the Pentagon?]

“To assure initial fiscal feasibility and sustain future fiscal feasibility," Rose added in High Bureaucratese, "the city would need to continually work to contain and manage financial risk in the future in order to maintain a viable wireless service for all of San Francisco."

Rose also noted that EarthLink's position as both the seller of wholesale access and one of the retail access providers gives rise to conflict of interest issues -- a concern that EarthLink officials in interviews with Unstrung have repeatedly dismissed.

From the service providers' side, euphoria has given way to grim resolution in the face of mounting criticism from the public and from local media about the alleged back-room nature of the original handshake deal.

Sounding a bit like President Bush in "Mistakes were made" mode, EarthLink executive vice president Donald Berryman, speaking at a Wireless Communications Association conference in San Jose Tuesday, acknowledged that the company had underestimated the political hurdles, the difficulty in obtaining rooftop leases, and the density of nodes required to build a network with the advertised coverage and service levels.

“We’re in the infant stages of this,” Berryman said. “EarthLink is a company who really needs this to work.”

Indeed, Kimo Crossman, a technical project manager at Charles Schwab who has become of the leading gadflies on the San Francisco wireless initiative, remarks that "EarthLink really needs this to be successful -- their whole business model for municipal networks depends on it."

Both EarthLink and the mayor have embarked on PR campaigns to sell the deal to the public and to recalcitrant supervisors. But time, says Oakland-based muni-wireless consultant Craig Settles, is not on the side of the deal makers.

"The mayor has started his campaign to save the deal, but the problem will be that the longer it goes on, the more chances are that the positions on both sides could become intractable," says Settles. "We really need a major concession point soon to get this thing done quicker rather than the full 180 days."

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

phillipwolfe 12/5/2012 | 3:16:13 PM
re: Criticism Mounts in SF Muni Deal Every critic has a valid reason to question the validity of the Muni WiFi project. However, the issue of price and costs should not be controversial because the cost data is readily available by carefully looking at the wireless equipment involved; in this case excellent Motorola Canopy Hotzones and Canopy backhauls. for the majority of the network infrastructure. Furthermore, the issue of placement of "nodes" or access points should not have been a problem. There are several good "wireless design software" packages available in the marketplace.

I am involved with several wireless projects - WiFi, Mesh, and such; and have not had any problem with demonstrating the effectiveness of wifi (802.11); or more proprietary spectrum.

Phillip Wolfw

somedumbPM 12/5/2012 | 3:16:10 PM
re: Criticism Mounts in SF Muni Deal Lets see where to start.....I have been doing ROI studies and some upfront engineering for some muni mesh projects and I have found that........

While the equipment prices are known, the equipment numbers are grossly underestimated due to the lack of any design software that takes into account reality - this is true for all vendors.

I will lightly cover one issue here:
Let's see oh just power the equiment via a streetlight, but my lights have sensors that only come on at night. No problem we can put a jumper device on it to power 24/7 (unknown $), but there is one sensor for about 40 lights how do I power the other 39. Hummm well....we need to install sensors, or maybe solar panels with batteries, or get an additional feed from the power company (unknown $) Also my lights run on 480V and your equipment requires 240 or 120. Well we can put a transformer on each light (unknown $). Also I do not actually own all of the streetlights in the geographic area some of these roads are controlled by the state DOT and I have no idea what their setup is or if they will let us use there poles - maybe for a fee (unknown $ and time). My public works department has requirements by CALTRAN that need to be met by the bracketing that mounts the equipment does your hardware met the specs (unknown $)? Public works specs also do not allow the nodes to be placed anymore that 5 feet away from the pole itself - you cannot put the nodes in the middle of the street on the crossbar - does this change your design (unknown $).

Now multiply the unknown $ times the number of nodes needed on streetlights by software that ignores trees both dry and wet(and growth thereof), store signs, and the interference of existing wireless systems setup my any Joe Smoe, among other things.

This is one issue........
AllKindsOfThings 12/5/2012 | 3:15:53 PM
re: Criticism Mounts in SF Muni Deal Dear somedumbPM,

good points. Fits to the feedback that already those folks who should be considered as having quite a good grip on node density, shading, interference, power supply and sourcing, location contracting and maintantace - aka the "Classic" Mobile Telephone Companies - do sometimes struggle to finding places to mount additional equipment in their quest to meet the expanding demand for mobile services and connectivity.

What would your personal "over yout thumb" assessement be of how high the density for how much more dense a WiFI approach will have to really be deployed compared to say a 1800/1900 MHz network?

Is the cost basis the SF folks named there (something between 900k plus and 2.x million minus) or are they not still happily ignoring a good part of ongoing maintenance cost for all these nodes?

Curious Greetinx!
somedumbPM 12/5/2012 | 3:15:43 PM
re: Criticism Mounts in SF Muni Deal AllKindsOfThings - I'll give those questions a shot. Please keep in mind my name here is somedumbPM and I am not a guru on this subject, but I have seen more friggin Powerpoint slides than I care to remember on this subject and I can throw questions to the engineers/marketing guys going through them that they cannot answer at the time, but promise to email me about later - of course I never get the emails and I do not get invited back to the next presentation.

I have only seen WiFi presented as the method of backhaul for the end devices which are still of the "mesh" variety. I believe this is the case in SF as the equipment used is Tropos and Motorola Canopy - anyone feel free to correct me if I am wrong I can no longer read RFP and related documents without falling asleep or skipping ahead to something I thing is different than I have read in the past 3 years.

I believe the density of the backhaul nodes using WiFi/WiMax to be tied closer to the committed service delivered versus the technology itself. Everyone is somehow stuck on 1M of guaranteed bandwidth per user at some level (free or paid). Looking at the number of nodes per sq mile (20-30)times the number end users (unknown or 50-75% of the public if you believe marketing) times the "guaranteed BW" and free BW per each different user leads me to believe that the range of the backhaul will allow it to reach more edge nodes than it can provide committed BW for. Also the range differs significantly based on the freq used. In the end the answer is always the same - depends on the engineering design and MORESO in this application than any other as there is so much variety in what can be encountered. Either way I believe more Wifi backhauls will be needed as the end nodes are more numerous.

I have no concerns that the technology works only that until the complete engineering is done that all quotes are garbage. And the engineering costs so much to do in advance that: 1)no one will take on the risk of doing so 2)no one can get behind cutting a check to have it done and then having a sound mind to actually decide not to follow through after so much has been invested.

Everyone happily ignores the maintenance costs. Every vendor says you will need 20-30 nodes on the edge per sq mi - depending on the coverage you would like. In the very small area of SF that is 980-1470 nodes on the edge alone -not including backhaul. Now many techs do you need to take care of those 24/7 and what is the Loaded Labor Rate for that skill in SF? How much are the bucket trucks they will need? How much does it cost for the Police to stop traffic while you make repairs/perform upgrades? Note all of these will vary for the customer depending on if it is self managed or contracted out.
kimocrossman 12/5/2012 | 3:15:29 PM
re: Criticism Mounts in SF Muni Deal I think 40 nodes per Sq Mile is now what EarthLink is planning.

good details here:
somedumbPM 12/5/2012 | 3:15:25 PM
re: Criticism Mounts in SF Muni Deal yikes! 33-100% more access points makes my ROI spreadsheet bleed.................even more than before.
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