Google Takes WiFi Plan to the 'Hood
Google and EarthLink won a bake-off in April to build the network here, but the actual contract with the City is still being negotiated. The City is still fretting over such dicey issues as user privacy and security, the availability of the network to the poor, and the ownership model for the network itself. (See SF Net to Go Public?.)
So it may be no coincidence that Google/EarthLink chose this moment to kick off a neighborhood-by-neighborhood tour of San Francisco’s church basements, schools, and libraries.
Tuesday's meeting was held in a church basement in the Upper Mission district of San Francisco. Only about 40 people showed up, and the vast majority appeared to be either Google or EarthLink employees, reporters, pundits, or freelance gadflies. (See Imbroglio by the Bay.)
The back door was left open, and you could hear the bass pumping from the tricked-out Acuras of the gangsters cruising by in the alley outside. It was a nice Indian Summer night.
Under the current plan for San Francisco WiFi, Google will act as an "anchor tenant" in a network largely owned by EarthLink. EarthLink will operate the physical network and pay for most of the infrastructure and upkeep, while Google will provide the applications (and advertising) that run over it. EarthLink has said the network will cost $15 million over the next ten years to build, operate, and maintain.
Some activist groups here are not happy with that ownership model. They would prefer that the City own the network. They argue that a city is more likely than a private company to contribute generously to "digital inclusion" programs. Such programs would provide the computers and training necessary to enable the poor and disadvantaged to use the new WiFi network.
And the City, apparently, has been listening. The budget analyst of the City and County of San Francisco agreed last week to study the feasibility of a wireless network owned by the City. A report of that study is expected to show up some time this December.
Google and EarthLink, however, are downplaying the idea that the ownership issue may take contract negotiations off the rails. EarthLink VP of product strategy and marketing Cole Reinwand said support for public ownership may look bigger than it really is. "It may be a just a minority that is really interested... I think they are doing some of their own analysis there, but the City will make its own decisions on that." (See New Muni Models.)
Reinwand said that in EarthLink's experience with cities, it has seen them sway toward a privately-owned model more often than not. "As they went through the process, raising money is pretty hard in most cases for the cities to run their own network," he said.
Reinwand pointed out that cities often don't have the technical know-how to own and operate their own networks. "It isn't like building a sewer system; the technology changes so quickly that it's something that could need to be rebuilt in four years. I'm not sure that that type of refresh is something that a city will be able to do by itself." (See Wireless Philly Loses Head.)
Another concern among some here is the privacy and security of the WiFi network. Some San Franciscans aren't too comfortable with the proposed network's ability to track the locations of users in the city, and target ads based on that information.
"Are you going to track us?" one audience member asked the Google people Tuesday night.
"We’ve listened to those concerns from the very beginning," said Chris Sacca, Google’s head of special initiatives. “We have built the network so that it knows very little about the user. It doesn’t know your personal ID, what sites you visit, or what you do there.”
"There isn’t any tracking," he said. "What the network has is a real-time awareness of where the user is." Sacca said this is useful when advertising comes into play. For instance, a burrito stand might buy advertising from Google that only displays to users within a six-block radius of the place, he explained.
Sacca said Google has been very upfront with the City on security issues. "We said from the start let's not pick any one security protocol for the last mile network, instead we have chosen a wireless VPN." Users will download a small wireless VPN application which encrypts the client's traffic to and from the server.
"I think we've got to the point that the city feels comfortable that consumer privacy is being protected," Sacca added.
Google and EarthLink have scheduled 10 more of these informational meetings in neighborhoods throughout San Francisco in coming weeks.
— Mark Sullivan, Reporter, Light Reading