San Francisco, in fact, is perhaps the most vaunted city-wide mesh project in the country, thanks to the involvement of Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) and EarthLink Inc. (Nasdaq: ELNK), which won the right earlier this year to build a wireless network that would provide free, faster-than-dialup (though slower than broadband) Internet access to all the city's residents as well as premium service to those willing to pay. (See Google & EarthLink Team Up.)
Google and Earthlink have both presented the San Francisco effort as an act of corporate benevolence and a way to bridge the digital divide that persists in one of America's most technologically advanced cities. Earlier this week, however, Google director of special initiatives Chris Sacca, who heads the muni-networking program for the Web search giant, made some biting comments about the city's "unreasonable" demands in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, noting that the project is still at essentially the same point as when the agreement to build the network was announced in April.
"Every meeting is like the first," Sacca told the Chronicle reporter, adding that the city's demand for a share of revenues would make the project economically unfeasible for the two companies.
Speaking with Unstrung Wednesday evening, Sacca tempered those remarks while still expressing his impatience.
"I don’t disagree with anything the city says -- they're just trying get the best deal for the people of San Francisco," he comments. "I applaud them for being this diligent. I just think we could apply this same level of diligence and still get [a contract] done relatively quickly."
San Francisco IT director Chris Vein had not responded to requests for comment as of this writing, and Earthlink spokesperson Deisha Galberth did not reply to multiple emails.
In any case, the city has already acknowledged that the network, originally scheduled to go live later this year, won't be functional until at least mid-2007.
Other cities have seen ambitious wireless network programs delayed or scaled back:
- Philadelphia, where the project is at least a year behind schedule and the head of the city's wireless initiative, Dianah Neff, recently left to take a job with a network-consulting firm. (See Wireless Philly Loses Head.)
- Sacramento, where initially selected provider MobilePro Corp. dropped out of the project altogether. (See Mesh Mess Sinks Sacramento Net.)
- New York, where the City Council passed a measure last year establishing a committee to lead the creation of a municipal broadband network, but no contract award or request for proposals has emerged. (See Where Is NYC?.)
Indeed, the twists and turns of the San Francisco project could indicate that an inclusionary, citywide network that purports to reach all residents could be the strategic missile defense of the wireless world. Sacca implies as much, admitting that the original vision for a dense mesh network blanketing the city probably won't work.
"I think what everyone is learning is that the difference is not made out in street," Sacca says. "It's not the radio up on the lamppost that's really going to bring this service to the people who need it -- ultimately the client devices have to be there."
In other words, even residents and businesses using the "free" service will have to spring for some kind of exterior repeater or other piece of customer-premises equipment to bring the outdoor WiFi signal to the user's computer. "Instead of really pushing to attain deep penetration and coverage with the radios on the street," he explains, "it's going to take an ecosystem of repeaters to grab that [signal] and bring it into your home."
Meanwhile, Google is counting on a series of townhall-style educational meetings across the city to convince San Franciscans of the benefits of the municipal network -- thereby putting pressure on city officials to close a deal and start installing nodes.
"That's really gonna generate a lot of interest among the citizens," Sacca says, "plus it'll remind us of who we're building this for."
— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung