SAN FRANCISCO – Google Inc. (GOOG) wants to connect all of San Francisco to the Internet with a free wireless service, creating a springboard for the online search engine leader to leap into the telecommunications industry.
Google submitted its 100-page bid in response to a request from Mayor Gavin Newsom (search), who is looking for a company to finance a free wireless network to lower the financial barriers to Internet access in his city.
More than a dozen other bidders are competing with Google.
If Google is picked for the San Francisco project, it would provide a testing ground for a national WiFi service (search) — something that many industry observers believe the company is pondering as a way to ensure people can connect to its search engine anytime, from just about anywhere.
"It makes sense for Google," said Chris Winfield, who runs a search engine marketing firm, 10e20. "They say their mission is to organize the world's information, so the logical next step is to provide the access to it."
Google spokesman Nate Tyler said Saturday that the company doesn't have any plans to offer a WiFi service outside the San Francisco Bay area.
"Unwiring San Francisco is a way for Google to support our local Bay Area community," Tyler said. "It is also an opportunity to make San Francisco a test-ground for new location-based applications and services that enable people to find relevant information exactly when and where they need it."
Google has been quietly experimenting with WiFi service in a few connection spots around the Bay Area and New York during the past few months.
In another sign of its interest in Internet access, Google recently bought an undisclosed stake in a Maryland startup, the Current Communications Group (search), which is trying to provide high-speed connections through power lines.
If it wants, Google has both the financial clout and the incentive to get into WiFi. What remains unclear is whether the company has the telecommunications expertise to build and maintain a WiFi service.
The company has nearly $7.1 billion in cash, having just raised $4.17 billion in stock offering completed last month. That stock sale prompted several industry analysts to conclude Google might be preparing to build its own high-speed Internet network.
Offering free WiFi service could pay off for Google if the greater access gives the company more opportunities to field search requests and ultimately serve up more advertising — the vehicle that provides virtually all of its profits.
Building its own wireless Internet network connection also would help Google save money by reducing the fees that it pays to the telecommunications middlemen that provide a bridge between the company's data centers and Internet service providers whenever Web surfers make a search request.
Any free Internet access service would threaten to siphon revenue from subscription Internet service providers like SBC Communications Inc. (SBC) and Comcast Corp. (CMCSA) that have invested heavily in high-speed connections that depend on phone lines and cable modems.
A Google WiFi service also could divert traffic from many popular Web sites, including Yahoo (YHOO), MSN and AOL, if it's set up to automatically make Google's home page the first stopping point.