Rhymes with DI-FI

Posted: Oct 06, 2005 12:00 AM

San Francisco truly is The Special City. Not only has Mayor Gavin Newsom announced his plan for the city to provide free or cheap access to high-speed wireless Internet for all San Franciscans, he also has proclaimed wi-fi access a "fundamental right."

 A fundamental right? I'm impressed. About one-quarter of students at San Francisco Unified School District score at "below basic" or "far below basic" on state reading tests. Those poor kids may not be able to read a book, they might not be able to afford a computer, but Newsom thinks they have a fundamental right to wi-fi. At least they can access free porn.

 I presume a "fundamental right" to wi-fi means every San Franciscan has a right to a laptop computer and the chip that hooks laptops up to wi-fi.

 Credit His Slickness with having the gift of the good stunt. Same-sex marriage? Ignore the law, and tell everyone that City Hall will approve them. The marriages won't be legal and the courts will be bound to invalidate them, but newlyweds won't blame the love-boat mayor.

  Besides, I must admit, the Right to Wi-Fi isn't as embarrassing as other S.F. political fiascos, such as: the supervisors' vote to reject bringing the battleship Iowa to San Francisco. Then the whacko idea of making the battleship acceptable by turning it into a museum to the "don't ask/don't tell" policy on gays in the military.

 Or the city ordinance that bans smoking outdoors on city property, including parks -- with a kindly exemption for golf courses.

 Or the attempt by former Supervisor Matt Gonzalez to allow non-citizens to vote in school-board elections. Or the resolution by Supervisor Tom Ammiano praising protesters of a 2004 biotech conference "for their concern for the health, safety and well-being of the public and the environment." Or the vote to redesignate S.F. pet owners as "owners or guardians."

 At least this stunt puts San Francisco not in the '50s or '60s or Stone Age, but in the future-looking pro-technology camp.

 As Tim Cavanaugh, editor of the libertarian online voice Reason.com, noted, not too long ago city pols rejected adding new antennas to improve cell-phone reception "out of hysterical concerns that cell-phone towers would give brain cancer to children." In a sense, you could say the wi-fi scheme is progress in Luddite-town.

 Google issued a statement that it submitted a proposal "to offer free wireless Internet access to the entire city of San Francisco." No doubt, many voters will believe there is such a thing as a free byte. After all, Google said so.

 Except there is a price to be paid for the megabytes. Communications savant Tom Hazlette of the Manhattan Institute noted in a telephone interview that faster, better wireless Internet is being developed all the time. Cavanaugh sees the Newsom wi-fi scheme as a potential "digital white elephant."

 S.F. Public Utilities Commissioner Adam Werbach wrote in The San Francisco Chronicle that TechConnect -- as Newsom calls his plan -- "challenges the existing monopolies and will foster competition necessary to provide universal high-speech, low-cost access." I doubt it. If it fostered competition, it wouldn't have a chance in this town.

 As Hazlette sagely noted, "Why would anybody build any telecommunications facility if the government is going to step in and provide people a government right to it?" So rather than fostering competition, the Newsom scheme likely will hamper it.

 Hazlette dismissed TechConnect as "vaporware." To wit: "There'll be a lot of publicity, and when it's over, there will be scattered service across the city. People who want reliable service will continue to buy it" -- from the private sector.

 I tried to reach the mayor to find out how his philosophy guides him to believe that the city should get into the wi-fi business. I sent Newsom's communications director, Peter Ragone, a message on his Blackberry. I went on the city website and sent from there a request to the Newsom aide mentioned under the handy heading, "Schedule an Interview."

 Ragone returned my call once, when I wasn't at my desk. The net result: Over two days, I didn't hear from Newsom before my deadline. Maybe it was one of those techno-glitches. Or maybe it was a taste of City Hall's vaporware.