San Francisco Unwired

Boondoggles by the bay.


When cellular carriers attempted to outfit San Francisco with new antennas, the city government nixed the proposal out of unfounded concerns that the towers would give brain cancer to children. When dot-com 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.

But now the city'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, and may necessitate the creation of a wasteful new bureaucracy.

Back in September, city supervisors Tom Ammiano and Chris Daly proposed a $300,000 study to find out whether the city should provide residents Internet, cable TV, and telephone services. More recently, Mayor Gavin Newsom marked his first State of the City address by proposing a citywide WiFi network that would secure residents' inalienable right 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. Left unaddressed: With the rapid expansion of wireless broadband protocols–802.11(b) anyone? or (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.

The supervisors' broadband/cable/phone proposal is a more straightforward boondoggle, involving massive new pipe laying during a sewer dig. Local experts and officials–among them Yale Braunstein, a professor of information management and systems at U.C.-Berkeley, and Sunil Daluvoy, vice president of the city's Telecommunications Commission–counter that there's plenty of cable already laid by private companies and now resting unused. Nor is the city exactly hard up for WiFi opportunities: Wireless networks have been installed at nearly every coffee shop, at no cost to the taxpayers and often free even for customers.