Sitting on the pier, eating ice cream, watching the sea lions, surfing the Net wirelessly for free. That's what San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom promised every city resident last October (well, the broadband part anyway), and since then he's taken some heat for not rolling out a Philadelphia-style wi-fi buildout. I think San Francisco residents, at least the taxpaying ones, should be glad that the Mayor has refrained so far. But there are reports he's about to launch a major broadband project.
It's not that wi-fi projects aren't already underway in the area. Business 2.0's blog notes that Google has already set up some hotspots with a Bay-area start-up (leading to the usual dominate-the-world rumors that Google wants to turn the earth into one big hot spot). A local directory suggests there are 435 free hot-spots in San Francisco already. But Newsom's speech in October portrayed a city where anywhere you went, even while in motion, you'd have continuous wi-fi.
For those of you who have spent time in the San Francisco, you'll understand the challenge here. One, it's pretty big, albeit not as large in square miles as other major western cities. Two, it's hilly, potentially interfering with signals. Three, it's densely packed with large, brick buildings that likely won't be very receptive to receiving wi-fi signals from outside. (When I tried to use wi-fi at a Starbucks in Georgetown, the signal couldn't even get up to their lounge upstairs; I had to sit by the baristas below.)
I find it hard to imagine Newsom plans to have the city build an entire network itself. More likely, he plans to have an bidding process where various companies can seek to build out the network and run it. Borrowing from the logic of our senior fellow Tom Lenard, however, it seems that if there was a good economic model to blanket San Francisco in wi-fi, then somebody would be trying to do it right now. If the government has to sweeten the pot a bit to induce a company to bid, then one has to ask if that's the best use of the local government's finite resources.
A Merc column said this: "Will we really be able to just show up in SF, put our laptop on any table, and start working? That would be rad..." Governments shouldn't be in the business of doing what's rad, though. That should be left to entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.