Bye-Bye Wi-Fi

By Debra J. Saunders

October 27, 2007 4 min read

I never thought I'd see the day when San Francisco's volatile Supervisor Chris Daly comes across as the voice of reason, while Mayor Gavin Newsom is stuck in a rut of two years of being completely in the wrong. When it comes to Proposition J, an advisory measure that asks city voters to support "free wireless high-speed Internet access" for all through a public-private partnership, however, Daly is right. Newsom should just give it up.

The Special City does not need free Wi-Fi. The free market works. Residents can purchase Wi-Fi access from a number of companies. Laptop owners can access free Wi-Fi if they buy a cup of coffee at many coffee shops. Or they can go to the San Francisco Main Library for free Wi-Fi — as well as the use of a computer; 20 library branches also offer a free ride on the Internet.

While Newsom argues that a public-private Wi-Fi operation would span the "digital divide," it can't. "'Free' Wi-Fi does not provide free computers for those without them. How does a Wi-Fi network close the 'Digital Divide' without computers and training?" asked the ballot argument co-signed by Daly. (OK, full disclosure: When the Daly argument warns that "everyone will get increased exposures to microwave radiation," he does go off the deep-end with which he is so familiar.)

That said, Daly's argument brings up a reason why Wi-Fi is doomed to failure in City Hall: Whatever deal Newsom cobbles together with private companies, it can never be equal enough. The deal Newsom arranged with Google and Earthlink — since abandoned by a downsizing Earthlink — offered a two-tiered product: free for all, but $20 per month for a faster connection.

That inequity led some supes to push for a municipal Wi-Fi agency. Capital idea: Maybe the genius who was going to issue mayoral proclamations to rapper Snoop Dogg and the founder of the Exotic Erotic Ball can run it.

The original Google-Earthlink deal also called for a 16-year contract, which Supervisor Aaron Peskin pushed to limit to eight years. That's a still lifetime in hi-tech — with a strong likelihood that any package supported by the supes would offer technology that could become obsolete before the contract ends. It makes no sense for a city that wants to attract high-tech to cut a deal with one or two corporations to the detriment of other innovators.

I understand the allure for Newsom. The plan that he championed for two years had the look of cutting-edge thinking — and for free. But the supes have shown that their crusade to make sure that no corporation makes money on the deal has a longer shelf-life than some tech start-ups. And what seemed cutting-edge now looks outdated and ill-starred.

I believe that Newsom has done as good of a job as any Ess Eff mayor could. But he got carried away when he argued that Wi-Fi access was a "fundamental right" and allowed this quest to eat up two years of city discourse. For what? To offer something anyone can buy or access at a public library?

The conceit for free universal Wi-Fi is that it will enable young people to log on to learn more about famine in Africa or health tips. Yeah, right. Sorry, but it would be more likely to present a huge windfall for MySpace, not to mention Internet porn. I think people can pay for those pursuits.

San Francisco voters have a choice on Nov. 6. They can vote no on Proposition J and send the message that they don't want a city government that does a lot of things poorly, and that they want a city government that concentrates on making the city a safe, clean and vibrant place to live well. Enough of the gimmicks.

E-mail Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com. To find out more about Debra J. Saunders, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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