Frisco WiFi: Eight Months and Counting

It looks like 2006 will close with no deal between San Francisco and the EarthLink-Google partnership selected to provide a citywide wireless system. As I’ve covered on this blog throughout the year (here, here and here), the San Francisco battle has come down to a caustic political fight between city officials who see WiFi as a city service than can be provided in partnership by a commercial company and a coalition of left-wing activists who view WiFi as a vehicle for enlarging city government. Hence the endless rounds of bickering over pricing tiers and the use of advertising on the free tier of service. Philip Matier and Andrew Ross of the San Francisco Chronicle write:

The key sticking point: what exactly will be free and what Google and EarthLink will be allowed to charge customers for upgraded service. “I wouldn’t say we are black and blue (from the talks), but this is a big, complicated deal,” San Francisco telecommunications chief Chris Vein told us.

Complicated? Only in the City by the Bay. Other cities, including Anaheim, Portland, Ore., Philadelphia and Santa Clara, Calif., seemed to have worked these issues out with their partners. Heck, even New Orleans, governmental basket case that it is, got its public-private partnership (EarthLink again) up and running! Then again, for these cities, it was hardly “complicated” to choose between willing private investment and raiding the public coffers to provide Internet access for what amounts to a middle- and upper-class demographic. The San Francisco project remains hostage to a band of anti-business groups such as Media Alliance, which are plainly dismayed that city has turned to private enterprise. For them, profit is a dirty word and the idea that in return for free service, users will have to view advertising, is an abomination. Hence, some of their more radical friends at City Hall feel obligated to keep pressure on EarthLink and Google to give away the store, while the two companies push back just as hard pointing to the economic realities of the broadband investment that in turn require certain pricing levels.

Steven Titch served as a policy analyst at Reason Foundation from 2004 to 2013.