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Google, EarthLink Move Closer To Free Wi-Fi In San Francisco

The team has cleared its first hurdle. But before construction can begin, the vendors have to negotiate a contract with the city and then get it approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

In beating five competitors for a key committee endorsement, Google Inc. and Earthlink Inc. have cleared the first hurdle in their joint bid to build a free Wi-Fi network across San Francisco.

Wednesday night's approval by the city's TechConnect Committee moved the Google-Earthlink team, which also includes Motorola and Tropos Networks, considerably closer to building the network that will blanket the city. Before construction can begin, however, the winners have to negotiate a contract with the city and then get it approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

In getting the committee's endorsement, Google and partners beat bids from MetroFi Inc., Razortooth Communications LLP, NextWLAN Corp., Communications Bridge Global Inc. and SF Metro Connect, a nonprofit backed by IBM and Cisco Systems Inc. MetroFi, which has built citywide Wi-Fi networks in several Silicon Valley cities, came the closest to beating the winners, the San Francisco Chronicle said.

"We are thrilled that the San Francisco TechConnect Committee has selected the EarthLink proposal," Donald Berryman, executive vice president of EarthLink and president of municipal networks, said in a statement.

The winning team plans to offer two levels of wireless services -- a basic one that would be free and a higher-speed paid service that would be operated by Earthlink.

In general, the free service would be faster than dialup, but slower than the average broadband connection. So far, telecommunication companies that have challenged free government-sponsored Wi-Fi in other cities as unfair competition have yet to take any action to stop the San Francisco project, which could be completed within eight months after the deal is finalized by the city, Bill Tolpegin, vice president of development and planning for Earthlink, said.

Tolpegin couldn't predict the amount of time it would take for negotiations, and to get a contract approved by the board.

"They might have just some small tweaks and they're ready to go, or they might want to do some significant reworking," Tolpegin said of the city in upcoming talks.

A unique element in the San Francisco project, compared to Wi-Fi networks Earthlink is building in Anaheim, Calif., and Philadelphia, is the extent to which Baghdad by the Bay wants a free service. Where as Philadelphia, for example, has opted for offering a free service in some public places and in accessing city and community resources, San Francisco wants a wide-open service without limitations, other than speed.

"It's the first time we've responded to that kind of request," Tolpegin said.

Google is expected to run the free service, generating revenue through advertising, while Earthlink charges a starting rate of $20 a month for the paid service, which is the same rate planned for the other cities.

"We're going to be consistent with our pricing," Tolpegin said.

Google, based in Mountain View, Calif., and Earthlink, based in Atlanta, plan to share the cost of building the network, which is estimated to be $8 million. The city would pay nothing, and receive fees for leasing city property, such as lampposts and power poles, for Wi-Fi antennas.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has a close personal relationship with Google's co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the Chronicle said. Newsom, however, was not involved in the committee's bid selection and the panel worked independently of the mayor.

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