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San Francisco Sees Economic Vitality in Citywide Wi-Fi

While lawmakers in some parts of the country are fighting to ban free wireless broadband access, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is looking at it as a potential tool for fixing community problems.
While lawmakers in some parts of the country are fighting to ban free wireless broadband access, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is looking at it as a potential tool for fixing community problems.

Newsom announced the city's TechConnect initiative Wednesday, appealing to commercial interests, non-profit organizations, community groups and other interested individuals to help the city provide affordable broadband access. The goal is to make Wi-Fi available in all corners of the city, to all residents.

And, he's not stopping there. Newsom is also looking for ways to provide hardware, software and training to those who cannot afford it on their own.

"TechConnect will connect all San Franciscans to the social, educational, informational and economic opportunities they need to succeed in the increasingly competitive local, national and international economies of the 21st Century," Newsom said in a written statement.

The San Francisco mayor has joined dozens of local government leaders now teaming up with non-profit and grassroots organizations to increase public access. Meanwhile, telecommunications companies are looking to federal officials to stop the trend. Both sides claim their way is the most likely to help the United States catch up in an international race for broadband penetration.

In their appeal for public input, San Francisco leaders point out that the United States' ranking for broadband penetration has fallen from third to sixteenth in four years. It states that the change is resulting in American job losses.

The city is considering all options for providing a low-cost network, including: offering it as a municipal service, forming a utility, and creating a public-private partnership.

Newsom said a citywide wireless broadband network could help improve government efficiency, promote access to healthcare, increase public safety through better communication and market the city to tourists.

Federal representatives, who have proposed legislation to block free public networks, argue that government-provided services are inferior to those that survive the rigors of competition.

Republican Senator John Ensign, of Nevada, is among them. He recently introduced the "Broadband Investment and Consumer Choice Act of 2005."

The bill states that "a patch work quilt of state and local regulations will only stifle growth and cause undue costs and burdens." U.S. Representative Pete Sessions, a Republican from Texas, introduced the "Preserving Innovation in Telecom Act of 2005." The bill would ban local governments from offering phone, information or cable services unless private companies failed to provide them.

Gina Vaughn, director of communications for Sessions, said he introduced the legislation because he "believes the Americans economy is based on entrepreneurship, not state-sponsored industry."

"Governments should not compete against private industries that they tax and regulate," she said. "The Congressman believes strongly that this variety of unfair competition will crowd out private investment and limit the roll out of technologies."

Joe Wilcox, a Jupiter Research analyst, said both arguments are valid.

"If you look at, say South Korea, where there are government initiatives behind broadband, their penetration is the highest in the world, or nearly that," he said. "In a sense government here already provides those types of services. Already, libraries are providing computers and internet access."

Wilcox said current security issues, like a worm taking down media systems this week, show a need for diligence in making sure access is safe and secure.

"If you look at the commercial market, competition creates incentive to provide faster service and safer services," he said.