I was stunned to hear that the normally very well informed Rita at SFist said the other day, “We must confess we’re still very vague on the pros and cons of the [Earthlink wi-fi] proposal”. Either she’s not been reading Left in SF, or I’ve not been clear about the pros and cons of the deal. I can’t correct the former, so I’ll address the latter with this quick reference to the good and bad points of the deal (note that I am not dealing with the philosophical or political issue of whether it’s a good idea for the city to trust a corporation to run such a vital function as communication):
- Free (as in beer) to the city, including free lower-speed service to anyone who can get a signal.
- Comes with a little money. The city will receive a couple hundred grand a year.
- City-scale wi-fi networks are EarthLink’s new area of business. Their dial-up business is dwindling rapidly, so they need a new way to make money. They’ve settled on city-wide wi-fi systems, so they likely either have or are developing expertise in this area.
- The network is designed to have symmetric up and down speed. This is an isue which we’ve shamefully neglected to discuss, but is one of the few forward-thinking elements of the city’s original RFP. I’ll try to address this in a future post, but it means that however good the network is, it’s as good for producing content as it is for consuming it.
- For those who have decent network coverage, it can be a good way to begin to transcend the Digital Divide.
- Google’s involved. Everybody loves Google! Except Chinese dissidents, anyway.
- Service will be slow. Free service is supposed to be 300 kbps. That’s less than half the speed of DSL, and likely to drastically slow down as more people on the same block try to down- or upload stuff. For $22/month, you can get speed that’s comparable to what people in other cities are getting for free.
- The amount of money the city is getting is trivial. For reference, the $300,000 the city hopes to receive every year would be about .005% of the city budget.
- There’s no enforceable guarantee that the network will cover every part of the city. Earthlink will have an incentive to concentrate their work in the areas where they’ll make the most money, which are likely to be the areas that already have the best broadband coverage.
- The contract is long. It looks to be very difficult to not renew the contract, so we’re likely stuck with this network for 17 years.
- The network will be exclusive. Although the network is not an explicit monopoly, it will essentially take up all the bandwidth at the frequency wi-fi uses, so it would be difficult or impossible to have a competing network without using a completely different (and likely more expensive) technology.
- Even if the network covers all of the city, it won’t get to interior rooms or above the second floor. If you don’t live in a room with a window facing the street, or you live above the second floor, or you don’t live near one of Earthlink’s wi-fi nodes, you’ll need a repeater box (also sometimes called Customer Premises Equipment, or CPEs), which can cost anywhere from $50-150. You’ll also need somewhere to put the repeater where it gets a signal to begin with. So prepare to ask favors of your neighbors!
- Although getting on the network will not cost money, it will involve giving up your browsing habits to companies that may use your history for marketing, sales, or even more nefarious purposes.