SAN FRANCISCO – This freewheeling city can't seem to agree if free wireless access to the Internet is such a great idea.
Hoping to break a political impasse, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has submitted a ballot measure asking voters whether they support blanketing the city with a wireless Wi-Fi system that would enable free Web surfing subsidized by ads from Google Inc. (GOOG)
The November ballot measure is nonbinding, so its approval wouldn't ensure a free Wi-Fi service would be built.
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But a thumbs-up would turn up the heat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to finally clear the way for free Wi-Fi — a crusade that Newsom began championing in October 2004 as a way to keep the city on the cutting edge of technology while making it more feasible for poor households to get online.
The supervisors could beat the voters to the punch. A board hearing on the Wi-Fi issue is scheduled in September, raising the possibility it could approve or reject the proposal before voters weigh in.
The project, one of hundreds of municipal Wi-Fi systems being built or proposed across the country, has bogged down amid concerns about privacy protection, surfing speeds and the terms of the proposed contract.
The agreement, which could run for as long as 16 years, currently calls for EarthLink Inc. (ELNK) to build the Wi-Fi system for an estimated $14 million to $17 million.
EarthLink hopes to recoup its costs by charging about $20 per month for Internet access that would be three to four times faster than the free, ad-supported service.
All the political haggling in San Francisco already has given EarthLink enough time to have second thoughts.
The Atlanta-based company's new chief executive, Rolla Huff, recently said he was reviewing the viability of its municipal Wi-Fi projects, including the San Francisco proposal.
EarthLink's rivals and independent analysts also have begun questioning the technical and economic models behind such projects.