More Hold Time for SF’s Wi-Fi Plans

If you like local politics, bureacracy and a drawn-out waiting game — tune into San Francisco’s ongoing Wi-Fi plans. I did yesterday, and spent three hours sitting through the city’s Budget and Finance Committee meeting, watching community advocates fight and supervisors play politics. One things for sure, the plans are as on-hold as ever, despite the initial approval.

A resolution requiring a more thorough study of citywide broadband options has made it through committee, and now awaits a vote by the full Board of Supervisors in two weeks. If passed, this resolution would delay any finalization of the contract with Google and Earthlink for at least a “couple of months,” according to Supervisor Jake McGoldrick, who sponsored the resolution.

The resolution was drafted after the city’s budget analyst recommended considering alternatives to the deal, which is being championed by the Mayor’s office. The board’s support for the contract is mixed. I have a hunch that the board will vote for further study, but will face a veto from Mayor Gavin Newsom that they won’t have enough votes to overturn.

The hearing brought out a number of familiar faces. McGoldrick, the resolution’s sponsor, sat in attendance along with committee members Chris Daly, Bevan Dufty and Tom Ammiano.

Daly can generally be counted on to oppose moves by Mayor Gavin Newsom, and may feel more strongly doing so now given Newsom’s recent rash of embarrassing personal news; Dufty, long considered a staunch ally of the mayor, has become much less predictable; and Ammiano, the senior member of the board, has been a champion of a municipally owned and operated fiber optic backbone network for years.

Google, which recently made a move into The City, was representated by Megan Quinn. She was joined by Alex Clemens, who’s Barbary Coast Consulting specializes in helping companies navigate the murky waters of San Francisco politics. Google is one of his clients, and I had received an email from him earlier in the week asking folks who supported the Google deal to turn out for public comment at the meeting.

And the public certainly did turn out to comment (video will be available here). In an unscientific survery, I counted about two supporters of the contract for every detractor, though Google hosted
a number of community events
to drum up support during 2006. Members of the community who hope the deal includes funding for ‘digital inclusion,’ such as Sister Petra Chavez of Caminos, argued that the faster the deal goes through, the sooner they can begin working on bridging the digital divide.

Thankfully, all the discussion focused on the merits of the case — all too often in San Francisco, policy often boils down into a fight between the mayor’s office and the board, and considering Newsom’s recent struggles, it could have gotten very, very ugly.

For their part, Google doesn’t seem terribly discouraged. “We look forward to continuing our work with the Mayor’s office and EarthLink to provide free Wi-Fi access to the over 1 million residents and visitors of San Francisco,” said Quinn.