SF Muni WiFi in Low Gear 618592

A year later, San Francisco's muni WiFi project is still little more than a gleam in the mayor's eye

October 3, 2005

5 Min Read
SF Muni WiFi in Low Gear

SAN FRANCISCO -- MuniWireless 2005 Conference -- Almost a year after San Francisco announced intentions to build a community WiFi network, the city still has no business model, technology plan, or funding strategy. Worst of all it has no idea what sort of fight may loom with local broadband incumbents.

After an enthusiastic announcement by Mayor Gavin Newsom last year, and a fair amount of hype since, the city remains at the information-gathering stage. (See Muni Networks: The Public's Not Buying.) The city hopes to zero in on a business model and a turn-key vendor solution by studying responses to an RFI that it circulated earlier this summer. The deadline for responses is Friday.

Mayor Newsom says he wants the city’s wireless broadband network to be “up and running” in six months, says Chris Vein, the city's technology lead for the "TechConnect" initiative, as it is now called. (See Coalition Calls for Community Broadband.)

“We have a problem,” Vein told a crowd of 250 here Thursday. “I have been visited by many, many, many people and there are about 570 versions of the absolute best way to build the network."

Vein played a video clip of San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom saying in his state of the city address last October that “we will not stop until every San Franciscan has access to free Internet service.”

Before his appointment, Vein says he watched the speech from the crowd that night and remembers feeling sorry for the person charged with making those words a reality.

Flash forward a year, and not much has happened. Sources close to the situation say the city was waiting to see if new municipal broadband legislation would be passed before moving too far into the planning process. Municipal broadband is being pitched as a social issue, a way of bridging a “digital divide” which the city believes exists between its affluent and poor residents. San Francisco’s project is somewhat unique because it is not fueled by a lack of broadband service providers in the market. On the contrary, the city is a lucrative telecom market for incumbents SBC Communications Inc. (NYSE: SBC) and Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), who are expected to do what they can to preserve their broadband market share.

The incumbents’ main response right now is a quiet skepticism. Those with whom Light Reading has spoken do not seem at all convinced that San Francisco has what it takes to pull the project off. That is, to provide an always-on network with good services at a low cost. (See Poll: RBOCs Fuel 'Broadband Gap'.)

“We just don’t think that it’s going to be everything that people are expecting it to be,” said SBC worker Rupert Young, who watched as consumer advocates, vendors, and city managers roasted their common enemy, the incumbents. (See Cannon Fires at Incumbents.)

"We aren’t going to go out and try to aggressively block San Francisco from building the network, but we think they aren’t going be able to do all the things they want to do -- like public safety things -- using unlicensed spectrum,” Young says.In general, SBC objects to the idea of having to compete with broadband networks that are funded by public monies. SBC recently filed comments with the FCC expressing their complaints about the San Francisco network.

SBC is waiting to see what sort of a business model San Francisco adopts before planning any opposition to it, Young says.

Some operators appear to be responding already. (See Utah's Broadband War.) Verizon Wireless chose San Francisco as one of a handful of U.S. cities in which to debut its EV-DO wireless broadband service (See Verizon Repeats on 3G.)

Verizon Wireless EV-DO broadband service costs $60 in a month in San Francisco, and requires a 2-year contract commitment.

Wes Dittmer, general manager of WLAN Services at Sprint Corp. (NYSE: FON) says San Francisco's muni network will be considered a threat only if it gets the technology right. “With wireless, service price is not the determining factor; it is the customer care," Dittmer says. "I think the same will happen with wireless broadband.""If you can’t provide a consistent [quality of service] experience you will simply solidify the incumbents’ position in the marketplace,” Dittmer says.

Dittmer, like SBC's Young, suggests some sort of partnership arrangement between the city and the incumbents may be possible once the network is up. "It’s not like we’re looking at it and saying I’m going to fight it head-on instead of adopting it; we’re taking a different approach.”

Sources say most of the 70 or so vendors that answer San Francisco's request for invoice (RFI) will propose mixed-use networks used for both city services and for consumer broadband. Another common theme in the proposals will likely be the use of a wholesale model in which private-sector firms provide broadband services over infrastructure owned by the city.

The city is hoping to learn a lot about the shape of its new network from the RFI responses it receives -- everything from the business model to the gear used to make it all work. The only real requirements the city has placed on the eventual solution to date are support of the 802.11 standard, and the capacity to deliver at least 1 Mbit/s of symmetric broadband at a low cost.

One vendor says the network could be put in place in as little as five months if the city expedited the issuance of permits and allocated resources quickly.

According to Esme Vos, the founder of MuniWireless.com and the MuniWireless 2005 conference, U.S. cities will spend $700 million over the next three years on municipal wireless networks, with $400 million spent in 2007 alone. (See Vos Dat?.)

Yesterday's conference drew a crowd of 300, organizers say, about half of which were technology and service vendors.

— Mark Sullivan, Reporter, Light Reading

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