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Reason Foundation

San Francisco takes municipal wireless to a whole new level

Steven Titch
December 26, 2005, 10:26am

And by this I mean a new low, even by municipal wireless standards. On Dec. 22, San Francisco released its RFP for its TechConnect citywide network. No matter how you feel about municipal wireless–it amounts to the most cynical attempt yet by a city administration to extract media attention from the muni wireless craze while making as little commitment as possible. Flawed as they may be, municipal networks until recently have been sparked by genuine attempts to get quality, economical broadband access to those still unserved. Lately, however, municipal wireless has become a way to score some easy political points. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin managed to take some heat off his failure to get the necessary funding to rebuild and reinforce the city's levees by proposing free broadband instead. And it worked. In San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom's call for free wireless, answered with a vague but provocative proposal from Google, was good for weeks of favorable coverage about San Francisco's (read Newsom's) ambitious plan to become a "unwired city" (even though Frisco already has more WiFi hotspots than any other U.S. city). The San Francisco RFP, however, asks little from the get-go, setting the lowest possible bar for basic free service while offering what could be a wireless broadband coup to any company willing to cozy up with city officials. Don't take my word for it. San Francisco's municipal wireless supporters are outraged. Just check out this article from the Bay Guardian or this posting from Webnetic. As for me, I hate to say I told you so. No, wait a minute. I love to say I told you so. A comment I wrote for the Heartland Institute warns that TechConnect stands to turn into a franchise bid offering political fringe benefits.
...Groups like Media Alliance and CTFC say contracting with private companies to build and operate muni networks might allow political motivations rather than the public interest to dictate who wins the contract and has access to the new network. But this is no argument for city ownership of broadband networks, which would politicize network administration even more. Rather, it suggests cities should not be involved at all.


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