Eager to portray himself as an innovative policy maker and the Board of Supervisors as obstructionists, Mayor Gavin Newsom brought busloads of low-income supporters to City Hall yesterday to champion his Wi-Fi proposal. The contract was negotiated with Earthlink, and would allow the Internet service company to install receptors throughout the City. With a hearing at the Board’s Budget and Finance Committee, Newsom created the perfect opportunity to assemble “more than just the usual suspects” in calling on the Supervisors to approve the plan now. The largely black and Asian crowd put on a powerful case about the need for Internet access in low-income communities, and some even accused opponents of the proposal as racist. But the devil is in the details about the contract – leaving progressives on the Board wondering if there isn’t a better way to tackle this problem.

I won’t even go into the privacy concerns that the ACLU brought up about this plan. Nor whether it’s a question of “selling out” a basic service to the corporate overlords of Earthlink, setting a dangerous precedent of privatizing other services. Everyone realizes that over 200,000 San Franciscans do not have Internet access at home – including 60% of African-American households. Raising objections like these appear academic to the low-income family who is currently being left out of the digital divide.

But the real question is whether those currently without Internet access will even benefit from the Wi-Fi Plan, whereas a municipal plan through the city’s fiber-optic installations could provide faster service and reach more people. Many advocates yesterday argued that we should go ahead with the Earthlink Plan because it’s free, whereas a municipal plan would cost the City millions and take years to implement. But what good is a “free” plan if it doesn’t reach the vast majority of people currently without Internet access?

Some have pointed out that the proposed Earthlink receptors (which would be placed on utility poles via the Public Utilities Commission) would only reach the outside of buildings and only up to the second floor. So an SRO tenant living on the third floor – or whose room is down the hallway and away from the street – will not even get the basic service.

At the Board hearing, City staff speculated that arrangements could be made for particular high-rise apartment buildings to improve reception, but were generally vague about a critical piece missing in the plan. If the vast majority of low-income people who can’t afford Internet access could not access the Wi-Fi from where they live, what good is the program at all?

Another concern is the quality of the proposed Wi-Fi. At 300 kilobits (kb) per second, the free service – assuming the topography concerns are dealt with – would be faster than dial-up modems but still slower than DSL or Cable. Meanwhile, the City of Mountain View has enacted its a free Wi-Fi program at 1.0 megabit (MB) per second (three times the speed), or almost as fast as a typical DSL connection. Earthlink’s plan for San Francisco would allow City residents to get a faster “premium” service at 1.0 MB, but for a price comparable to current Internet plans.

So it’s not really a “free” plan – at least not for the good quality Wi-Fi connection. And 300 kb leaves much to be desired. As a Beyond Chron reporter covering this story, I watched the Budget Committee hearing from my office computer through SFGOV’s live streaming video. Operating at 300 kb, the connection was incredibly spotty and I ended up missing large segments of the Hearing as a result – which was extremely frustrating.

That doesn’t mean that the 300 kb is totally useless – but it will cut you off frequently when you’re downloading files, especially if there’s a lot of traffic on the connection. Which adds another problem. If the City provides this service for free at 300 kb, don’t expect residents in Bayview Hunters-Point to suddenly get a reliable server. With many people using it, they’re likely to get cut off a lot too.

The Earthlink proposal would benefit those who can afford the “premium” 1.0 MB service and is preferable to paying for dial-up modems. So there’s no question that it will help those who currently pay for inferior service. But to parade low-income people who currently have no service and make complaints about the need to access job applications through the Internet is either naïve and misguided, or else deliberately deceptive.

Progressives who raised questions at yesterday’s hearing about the details of this project were derided as obstructionists. “Why is it that poor people always have to wait,” exclaimed the Reverend Arnold Townsend. “I would rather have a system than no system at all.” Low-income people with legitimate concerns testified along with representatives of the Chamber of Commerce and the Association of Realtors about the need to get Wi-Fi for San Francisco “sooner, rather than later.”

And sooner rather than later works for the Mayor’s agenda. Up for re-election in six months, Newsom wants to show the electorate that he has done more for the City than supporting same-sex marriage – as the Board of Supervisors (not the Mayor) have driven the policy agenda. It doesn’t matter for him if the Wi-Fi plan has its problems, as long as he can tell voters that we were the first large City to implement free Internet access for everyone.

Newsom also chastised the Supervisors for objecting to the Wi-Fi plan at a rally before the hearing. “If you have a better idea,” he said, “make amendments to it and move ahead with. But this is just one fundamental component of addressing the digital divide.”

Until now, Newsom has had a “take-it-or-leave-it” approach with the Supervisors about the Wi-Fi plan. But if he now invites the Supervisors to modify the proposal so that it truly addresses the digital divide, will Earthlink necessarily go along with the changes? And if they don’t, will he later accuse progressives of “sinking” this opportunity?

For a Mayor up for re-election, any effort to look like he’s taking the initiative is a boost.

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