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10/1/2005
05:52 PM
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Google In The Air

Google has dropped another of its seemingly endless supply of bombshell announcements: The company has submitted a plan to cover 95 percent of San Francisco with 300kpbs wireless Internet access, at no charge either to users or to the city. I'm thrilled with the plan, both because I live in San Francisco and because SBC is obviously terrified at the idea.

Google has dropped another of its seemingly endless supply of bombshell announcements: The company has submitted a plan to cover 95 percent of San Francisco with 300kpbs wireless Internet access, at no charge either to users or to the city. I'm thrilled with the plan, both because I live in San Francisco and because SBC is obviously terrified at the idea.This isn't a done deal: Google is one of more than a dozen companies responding to a RFI the city issued last summer. At the time, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom outlined an ambitious plan to blanket the city, including low- and middle-income residential neighborhoods, with free wireless Internet access. The key question was how to accomplish this without burdening the city's already-strained finances.

The city could, of course, choose any of these bids in the next few weeks, or it could reject all of them. Google must also address some obvious weaknesses in its bid, such as the company's almost complete lack of experience building wide-area wireless networks. This is no small matter in San Francisco: In spite of the city's limited area (just 49 square miles, surrounded by water on three sides) and population density (the second highest in North America), the hills of the San Miguel range, some nearly 1,000 feet high, combine with dozens of smaller hills and valleys to wreak havoc on wireless signals. Google says it will ensure quality of service by installing up to 30 access points per square mile, but I wouldn't be surprised if it needed twice as many to cover certain neighborhoods.

There's also the question of how Google will cover the cost of building the network (which another company estimated at $10 million -- that sounds very low) and supplying the bandwidth. An ad-supported service is one possibility; another would be a tiered service in which customers who pay a monthly fee get technical support and perhaps even quality-of-service guarantees. Still another option is for Google to charge for access to higher bandwidth, either directly or through resellers. One type of business model that I guarantee will not fly with residents involves monetizing their personal information, a fact I think Google is hip enough to recognize from the get-go.

Neither of these concerns is enough to make Google's bid anything less than irresistible to the city. Besides having the resources to build and run the network at no cost to anyone else, there's another reason why I think Google is the best choice: It has the resources and the will to fight back against companies that would love to kill the very idea of municipal Wi-Fi.

Although national ISPs such as Earthlink and even Yahoo come to mind, I don't think they'll go beyond grumbling about the plan. But the prospect of genuine competition simply petrifies the telecom industry -- in this case, our widely-despised local provider, SBC Communications. I don't see them allowing this to happen without a legal and/or legislative fight, although they might think twice if they faced an opponent that could buy them -- perhaps literally.

SBC has already been good for its usual comic relief: Witness company mouthpiece John Britton claiming that "there is already widespread broadband available today" in San Francisco. Well, yes, John, there is -- provided you live in a cafe or a bookstore, or along parts of Castro or Chestnut streets where six-figure incomes are just enough to scrape by. Otherwise, you'd have to -- well, you'd have to work for a telecom to say something that stupid.

We've also heard from Vince Vasquez, a "policy fellow" with the Pacific Research Institute, who says he opposes any municipal involvement in providing wireless Internet access. "Our concern is with public money and publicly controlled Internet access," Vasquez told the San Francisco Chronicle. "We take a lot of caution about how government should intervene in the market."

Surprise: The Pacific Research Institute receives funding from SBC. This may explain why Vasquez can utter free-market platitudes without addressing an equally vital concern for any conservative think tank: Telling the federal government to butt out of local jurisdictions' affairs.

That's relevant here, because SBC is all about Congress sticking its noses where they don't belong. If you'll recall, one of the company's former employees, Representative Pete Sessions (R-TX), introduced a bill that would outlaw municipal-sponsored networks. If that bill fails (which seems likely), you can expect these weasels to try again and again to strip local communities of the right to decide what types of public services they support.

When you think about it, bare-bones, 300kbps wireless Internet access isn't even a very daunting competitive barrier; any competent private service provider would have more than enough, above and beyond such a service, to offer its customers. But just as some companies would rather use sham intellectual-property claims to extort money from customers and competitors, a company like SBC would rather spend its money buying congressmen and tainted "policy research" than deal with customers who have a choice.

And if this is largely a matter of trading the old boss for a new boss, I'll go with Ars Technica's Chris Jade (who deserves credit for turning me on to this news) when he says, "I, for one, welcome our new wireless overlords." After all, this "overlord" might, with a single effort, do more to get lower-income citizens online than SBC and its creatures have done in their entire history.

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