Why Ask Wi?

The wired city in history


When cellular carriers attempted to outfit the city of San Francisco with new antennas to improve poor cell reception, the local government nixed the proposal out of hysterical concerns that cellphone towers would give brain cancer to children. When dotcom mania gripped and enlivened the city, the local legislature fought the boom with on-the-fly zoning regulations and efforts to close the "loopholes" that allowed businesses and workers to set up shop in town.

Now, however, the City By the Bay's executive and legislative branches appear to have found a communications technology they can get behind: The kind that requires government fact-finding studies, has no visible means of paying for itself, probably won't work, and may only be conceivable through the creation of a wasteful new bureaucracy.

Back in September, city Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Chris Daly, proud veterans of the anti-dotcom backlash, proposed a $300, 000 study to find out whether the city should provide internet, cable TV, and telephone services to residents; the heart of the proposal is a scheme to lay new fiber optic cable during an upcoming sewer dig. Then last month, Mayor Gavin Newsom marked his first state-of-the-city speech by proposing a municipal WiFi network that would allow everybody in the City of St. Francis to download porn without paying for a web connection.

"We will not stop until every San Franciscan has access to free wireless internet service," the 37-year-old Democrat declared.

But some believers in sensible governance or reliable technology might hope they can be stopped. With the rapid expansion of wireless broadband protocols—802.11(b) anyone? How about (g), or (n)? And what of WiMax?—it's unclear how the city can put up a network that won't be obsolete in six months. And WiFi, despite its intriguing name, doesn't really come out of the air: It communicates old-fashioned internet connections at very limited ranges.

So America's kookiest metropolis is planning a digital white elephant: What, other than the rapidly fading excitement of the WiFi fad, is important about that?

For starters, San Francisco is hardly alone in announcing an ambitious municipal wireless plan. Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York, Detroit, and a host of other cities have all posited, and in some cases begun to implement, municipal hotspots.

"Some of these experiments aren't bad, and shouldn't necessarily be dismissed," says Tom Hazlett, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. "The problem is that city regulators keep out the real networks people are trying to build, by holding up rights of access."

Those who propose local governance as a cure for the craziness of Federal regulation should look at how cities and states have dealt with telecommunications. The results might make you long for the half-asleep management of Washington, D.C., if not Moscow. San Francisco's own history of undermining competition, wittily condemned by Matt Smith in this SF Weekly article, is by no means an outlier. Anthony Townsend, an adjunct professor of Communications and Urban Planning at New York University who was instrumental in building the Big Apple's successful Bryant Park hotspot, notes that many cities around the country have used the brain-wave scare to keep out cellular antennae, despite language in the 1996 Telecommunications Act designed to prevent such actions. Hazlett points to Philadelphia's successful battle to protect Comcast from competition with cable upstart RCN. "Now this same city is turning around and saying 'We're going to build our own universal wireless network?'"

In that context, the fad for municipal wireless networks may be a left-hand-of-God counter-initiative, and San Francisco's is probably on the less objectionable end of the scale. A spokesman for Newsom's office tells Reason the budget and design of the mayor's ambitious free and universal plan have not been decided on, and the immediate strategy is to set up individual hotspots on the Embarcadero, in Chinatown and in housing projects in Bayview. Given that public housing continues to be a reality in 2004, this probably isn't such a bad idea.

It's when grand rhetoric about citywide free access gets thrown around that these proposals begin to melt into air. "I don't think any of these proposals are very specific," says Yale M. Braunstein, a professor at Berkeley's school of Information Management and Systems. "There are really two models for this. The first is the commercial model used by Surf 'n' Sip, T-Mobile, etc., where you sign up and pay, and we make money on the deal. If that's the structure, why is a municipality the right entity to run it?

"The second is the public library model: Anybody can use it, and even the people who don't use it are going to have to pay for it. The question is why should those people have to pay? These are questions that aren't even settled with telecommunications at the Federal level. I work on a university where they have an excellent wireless network, and I know how it's paid for: It runs at a loss, and the budget comes out of general funds. It's not clear that a municipality should be doing things the same way."

Whatever the public interest arguments for providing wireless services to low-income residences or tourist destinations, it's hard to see how a free citywide network wouldn't be a duplicative waste of time in San Francisco, where WiFi is already widely available at Crazy Eddy prices. (Reason Online is brought to you in part through the good offices of a coffee shop that provides not only free WiFi but free refills; I'll be happy to provide the name and location to anybody who promises to buy at least a sandwich at this establishment.) Newsom has so far avoided this issue by not discussing budget specifics; other mayors have simply lowballed the price.

"When Philadelphia announced it would be doing its citywide network at a price of $10 million, that figure was laughed at," says NYU's Townsend. "It's way too low."

Though Townsend does not dismiss the idea that a citywide WiFi network might be feasible, it's hard to square this vision with actual experience with the technology and its tendency to go dead even when you're working from the next room. "WiFi is extremely useful as a short range device," says the Manhattan Institute's Hazlett. "The best analogy is your cordless phone. It's a cordless PC. In 1997, for the first time, more cordless phones were sold than corded, and that has been increasing since then. Does anybody think from that that the former Bell companies are now obsolete? Is the city going to put cordless phones all over town to provide free phone service?"

It might be best not to give them any ideas. Like the periodic presidential announcement that the United States will put a man on Mars by the end of whatever decade it is, the new trend of mayoral WiFi initiatives may be merely a benign tumor on the polis—a silly, potentially wasteful idea that comes safely to nothing.

"There's no plan, no funding, no assignment of responsibility," says Townsend. "It's a shame because San Francisco has been pretty good on telecommunications. I see an opportunistic mayor trying to attach himself to a popular issue without really doing anything about it."

Three cheers to that. Let's just hope that when the time for grandstanding is over, the local government might really do the right thing and stop standing in the way of private companies looking to make an honest buck by providing 21st-century services.