San Francisco, EarthLink agree on Wi-Fi terms

EarthLink and San Francisco have agreed on terms of a contract for a citywide Wi-Fi network.

US ISP EarthLink and the City and County of San Francisco have agreed on the terms of a contract under which EarthLink would build a citywide Wi-Fi network. EarthLink would offer a paid service on that network while Google would provide a slower, free service.

The parties reached a deal Friday evening, according to an EarthLink statement. The national Internet service provider (ISP) said the network would ensure affordable wireless broadband for the whole city and that, through Mayor Gavin Newsom's digital divide program, children and students would have all the tools they need to use the Internet.

The months of negotiations over the proposed network have been closely watched because of Google's involvement in the plan and the ongoing criticism of the proposal. The city had hoped to finish the talks in December. The contract needs to be approved by the Board of Supervisors before the project goes forward. It is likely to face a fight from some supervisors who have urged closer study of a municipally owned network.

If the deal is approved, EarthLink hopes to start building it this year.

At the Board of Supervisors, the city's plan with EarthLink will go up against calls for a city-owned network. A report by the board's budget analyst on the costs and benefits of that approach should come out next week, said Supervisor Jake McGoldrick, who has been pushing the alternative plan.

"We should stop and look and not just leap just because the mayor wants to be able to sell this sizzle," McGoldrick said Friday. By giving EarthLink access to light poles and other locations for radios, the city is giving away valuable resources in a deal that locks it in for several years. The city could contract with private companies to carry out technical tasks, but it should own the network and be able to price services itself, he said.

The Wi-Fi initiative, kicked by Newsom in 2004, has been hotly debated even as many other communities around the U.S. jumped on the municipal Wi-Fi bandwagon. Governments are seeking municipal broadband networks for a variety of reasons, including economic development, improved government communications and Internet access for lower income residents. Some incumbent carriers have attacked the idea of government competing with them.

In San Francisco, EarthLink plans to provide a 1M bps (bit-per-second) service for about US$20 per month while Google will offer 300K bps for free, supported by advertising. Critics have charged the free service is too slow, the network won't provide good service indoors and users' privacy could be compromised.

In April, the city chose Google and EarthLink's joint proposal and later began talks to work out the details. Google, which would be a tenant on EarthLink's network, was not directly involved in the negotiations.

"We look forward to continuing the approval process with EarthLink and the Board of Supervisors and remain excited to see the service go live as soon as possible," Google said in a statement Friday.

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