Google's WiFi Bid for San Francisco

With its bid to provide all of San Francisco with free wireless Internet access, Google -- the "search engine" company that has grown up into so much more -- has changed the conversation about what it means to "wire" a city.

Google isn't the only bidder in the contest to provide San Francisco with free Internet access. In fact, the company got its proposal in just under the deadline. But the filing was proceeding by weeks of rumors in the technology press about Google's plans to provide wireless access for some city, somewhere.

In San Francisco, at least four companies are vying for the job of blanketing the city with free wireless access, among them Comcast, the city's cable service; SBC, its local phone company; and Earthlink, the Internet service provider that won the bid to provide free city-backed WiFi in Philadelphia. The city is expected to select a winner by the end of the year and "construction" -- putting up access points around San Francisco's hills and valleys -- should start early next year.

Why is Google so interested in providing free wireless for San Francisco? The answers combine business and politics on both sides of the equation.

Let's get the easy ones out of the way first: Yes, Google will get a lot of good PR if the service is as free and popular and well-run. It will extend its brand -- those cute colorful letters -- and bring more users to it search service more often. Imagine being a tourist lost in San Francisco, using your cell phone to look at a GoogleMap to get back on track. More users means Google can sell more ads and that the ads it sells will reach more viewers.

San Francisco politicians will benefit from having an Internet high-flyer like Google do something good for the city. The benefits of free WiFi coverage -- for cities and their residents -- include far cheaper cell phone bills. City employees can use WiFi and there's the opportunity for better communication between workers in the field and their offices via instant messages or email. The city will save money.

City pols also get a chance to strut their high-tech stuff and make some amends, particularly with the crowd that put Mayor Gavin Newsom in office; young wealthy families making their livings in tech or in the financial services businesses that support the area's tech companies. These people -- more conservative that the rest of the city, more business-oriented and more entrepreneurial -- agree with Newsom's assessment that access to information is a fundamental right. That's how they make their living: sifting, sorting and categorizing information.

Then there's the economic development aspect: San Francisco sits on the edge of Silicon Valley. Ubiquitous, free WiFi is something that will lure men and women working in Silicon Valley's tech companies to the city, as residents, as shoppers, as employees and employers. San Francisco boomed during the tech bubble and, apart from some bad feelings and a lot of empty office buildings and "live-work lofts" in its former warehouse districts, has little to show for it. Free WiFi is a way to start filling those lofts again. It's also a way to get Internet access in to the city's poorest neighborhoods.

For its part, Google gets to shake up the political landscape in the telecom world by stepping into the middle of an argument that's been brewing between municipalities and the big phone and cable outfits. Phone and cable companies aren't interested in seeing cities and towns compete with them for customers. That's exactly what happens when local governments offer free WiFi.

In some cases -- Philadelphia, for example -- the phone companies have cut deals with state legislators to make sure they keep some kind of control over who offers free wireless access. In other cases -- such as in Austin, Texas -- the phone companies have been stymied. But there water is muddy enough that it's clear issues of who can offer access to the Internet -- and the terms under which they can do so -- is headed to Congress as part of a rewrite of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Google's announcement that it can provide free WiFi -- if it doesn't do it in San Francisco, it will do so elsewhere -- changes the dynamics of that argument because it brings consumers into what has been a backroom discussion between politicians and telecoms. It's made wireless Internet access a consumer issue, one that's harder to manage or predict through the legislative process.

But Google is doing something else here with its WiFi announcement. It's having a conversation of sorts with its users. It's showing them that the Internet isn't confined to a special type of machine (like a television or a desktop computer) or a special place (your office, at home or at work). It's demonstrating that the Internet really is anywhere and that you -- an ordinary person with a cell phone or a Palm -- can get what you need from it, when it's convenient to you. Google's friendly and familiar logo will do that faster than almost anything else out there.

That's the step that many folks in the tech business -- and many of those looking at politics from a tech-savvy perspective -- think is long overdue. And it's one that San Francisco seems anxious to take.

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