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SF, EarthLink Agree on Muni Net

Like a pair of exhausted runners stumbling across the finish line, negotiators for the EarthLink Inc. (Nasdaq: ELNK)/Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) joint venture and for the city of San Francisco said late Friday that they had reached an agreement on the city's long-delayed municipal wireless network project.

Mayor Gavin Newsom, in a statement this morning, said the deal could make San Francisco the first major city in the country to offer free universal wireless Internet access.

"Ubiquitous WiFi will change how residents access education, social services and economic opportunities," Newsom said. "This will make city government more effective and accountable to the people we serve."

Coming almost a year after the agreement was first announced with great fanfare, and following prolonged negotiations that became acrimonious at times, the deal must still be approved by the city's Board of Supervisors.

"It is my hope that the city's legislative branch will join me in leveraging the power of the Internet to enhance the lives of our citizens," Newsom added.

Approval by the Supervisors is hardly an automatic rubber stamp, according to Craig Settles, a municipal networking consultant and author of Fighting the Good Fight for Municipal Wireless.

"After finishing the champagne toasts, there are still some rough rows left to hoe here that everyone should not lose sight of," says Settles in an email to Unstrung.

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 possible deal. In September the city government agreed to fund a study of a city-owned WiFi alternative to the Google/Earthlink project. That study has not yet been completed. (See SF Net to Go Public?)

"The counter-movement by some among the City Supervisors to explore the option of the city to own its network could become a formidable obstacle," adds Settles. "I think the Mayor's office will have to spend some extra hours assuring the Supervisors that this deal is indeed in the city's best interest."

Deemed "rather vague" by WiFi networking expert Glenn Fleishmann, the editor of WiFi Networking News, the 48-page agreement between the city and EarthLink, the lead service provider on the project, never mentions Google by name. The search-engine giant is expected to manage the free, 300-kbit/s WiFi service on the network, which will be built by EarthLink using equipment from Tropos Networks Inc. EarthLink will install a two-square-mile test network, and the city will approve the build-out from there or ask for improvements. The Board of Supervisors has 180 days to ratify the contract.

No fees are specified in the agreement for the the 1-Mbit/s Premium service level, but EarthLink has said they will be on the order of other city-wide networks the company is deploying, i.e., around $21.95 per month.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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