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.