Politics of San Francisco WiFi Project

Jackson West has been kind enough to fill in for me, as I am still rendered useless by the flu. He has a keen knowledge of San Francisco politics and has become a regular fixture in some of local independent media. I hope you enjoy this special take on San Francisco’s Wi-Fi plans – Om

san francisco

Guest Column by Jackson West

The push for citywide wireless coverage (not to be confused with municipal wireless), while exciting, exposes the difficulty in bringing together technology and politics.  To complicate matters, it involves San Francisco politics, which can be sordid and cattier than the very best of day time soaps. Google’s plans to offer WiFi in San Francisco for free has surely created some problems for other players. However, they might not be prepared for the quagmire that is San Francisco politics. The wireless project ties into San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s national political ambitions, but could run aground on anti-corporate public sentiment.

Gavin has been mentioned as a potential Senator, Governor or even President (rather optimistically). Nationally, he’s known for his move to legalize same-sex marriage, but locally his bread-and-butter issue is homelessness — an undeniable problem in San Francisco that grew under the reign of his mentor Willie Brown. The “Care Not Cash ” proposition he floated as a supervisor was largely considered an effort to get his mayoral campaign — and fundraising — off to an early start. Since taking office, he’s given money and time to Project Homeless Connect , a volunteer non-profit meant to help ease access to city services for the indigent. One effort Homeless Connect lead was to collect and distribute used computers. So it comes as no surprise that his latest efforts on large-scale wireless are being hailed as “Project Tech Connect.” At all the publicity events, it’s been stressed that this effort is to empower folks in San Francisco’s minority communities.

It might not be smooth sailing for the mayor, who lacks legislative majority to rule by executive fiat. Progressive candidate Tom Ammiano (who first proposed a municipal broadband network) who lost to former mayor Brown in a close race, has helped his progressive party get more traction in the local politics. In the last election, progressives put their weight behind Matt Gonzalez, but lost another tight election. They still managed to get more traction in the district elections, though Gavin enjoys more popular support than Brown did.

The planning of any big project in San Francisco will become a political war by proxy. After a recent speech by Lawrence Lessig about the need for “network neutrality” on the internet, and a panelist from Project Tech Connect repeated talking points from Gavin’s announcement, Ross Mirkarimi made an unannounced visit to lobby for The City to “municipalize all our networks” — an allusion to the fight against Pacific Gas and Electric over municipal power and other privitization of city services.

So what are the responses to the RFI/C like?  Some of them are vague, some have been heavily redacted, some are downright scary — and those are the responses with a ‘commercial interest.’ An email and postcard campaign organized by Media Alliance (who put the Lessig presentation together) netted over two hundred responses from citizens interested in a bare-bones, open infrastructure network akin to city streets and highways or the power grid. A captive-portal, proprietary network, they argue, would cripple innovation (such as consumer WiFi hardware like VOIP phones) and lead to potential abuses in privacy protection, security and competition for services.

SBC wrote to tout their new 3G service rollout, and The Pacific Research Institute, a conservative think-tank that receives money from SBC, “believe that proposals for government-controlled wireless broadband networks are based on flawed concepts that would harm communities if implemented.” On the other hand, the aptly named SNAFU (San Francisco Neighborhood Antenna-Free Union) is also pissed, and point out that they’ve won 12 of 15 appeals over new cellular antennas going up — even though the 1996 Telecommunications Act prohibits them from arguing about potential health risks. In the unlicensed 2.8 and 5.6 bands, though, the Telecommunications act doesn’t apply, and this could provide political ammunition for the Board of Supervisors if they aren’t happy with the deal.

SFLan, backed by the Internet Archive, filed probably the most progressive response for building out the network, and believe that the capital for the project should be raised through bond measures and built out in stages, using commodity hardware and open standards.  On the other side, Motorola’s proposal suggests that the city pitch the project as a public safety issue, and capitalize on grants from government organizations such as the Department of Homeland Security.  They suggest that the network would help law enforcement by enabling the SFPD to put wireless cameras across the city cheaply, and that the signal from a particular camera could be routed wirelessly to officers in their cars as they approached the scene.  In a particularly frightening scenario for San Franciscans, Alvarion’s response even floated the prospect of super-efficient wireless parking meters.

While Earthlink has more experience in civic WiFi projects than any of the other companies responding, their response, heavily redacted, says costs for residential access would be “less than $20” for 1 mbps service. Google’s is the most vague of the responses for a turnkey system at no cost to The City, and it looks like Google would build a captive-portal system supported by advertisers. While their newly amended privacy policy doesn’t raise too many red flags for users of their services, the provisions for tracking a users clicks, for instance, would be ominous if they were also tracking location (even in the aggregate).

Most of the proposals are for specific services or address specific issues. One of the many things that Google’s response didn’t address would be the handling of traffic backhaul, fiber and wireless point to multipoint redundancy and whether they would use a distribute mesh network design — they only say that San Diego network engineers WFI will be responsible for the design and installation of the network. Most of the companies angling for contracts to build portions of the system argue against a single-provider, turnkey solution. Feeva, who already partner with The City, sent in the laziest of the responses (asking that their software be licensed by whomever ends up being the provider), actually leaving telling changes in their Word document highlighted.

An ambitious politician would be smart to become an ally of Google, and Gavin has shown panache in taking popular progressive causes (such as municipal broadband and same-sex marriage) and making them his own. However, expect neighborhood representatives on the Board of Supervisors to oppose any move to let a company monopolize more critical infrastructure. The battles over Comcast, SBC and PG&E’s monopolies are second only to real estate issues when it comes to rough-and-tumble local politics. The Board of Supervisors, San Francisco community activists and open network advocates will fight tenaciously to make sure that their concerns are addressed. While Gavin and Google have made splashy promises of rapid deployment, don’t hold your breath — the fight in San Francisco City Hall has just begun. (The San Francisco WiFi Players!)

Jackson West is a freelance cynic, writer and web geek living in San Francisco’s Mission district. Photo by Todd “Telstar Logistics” Lappin.