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Saturday, October 01, 2005

FREE IN SAN FRANCISCO: The city by the bay has embarked on a plan to wire the entire municipality for free, and no, I'm not talking about psychedelics. San Francisco's busy negotiating with Google to turn the city into one big wireless hot spot so all citizens can get online whether they're at home, in a cafe, at a park, cafe, or strip club. Here's the key word, really important: FREE. Now, for the fine print. San Francisco is a notoriously complicated city for blanket Wi-Fi coverage because of the steep streets, valleys, hills and tall buildings. The speed of the basic service will be 300 kilobytes per second, faster than dial-up but slower than some broadband. Free includes no customer service or technical support. If you want those "extras," they'll be available — for a fee (which rhymes with "free" but is different to this extent: it costs money). Here's the part that probably appeals most to the socialist instincts of San Francisco's political class: Google's experience in Wi-Fi is limited to tests at a single gym and a single cafe near its headquarters in New York City. (Sounds good to me, let's also ask them to run Medicaid.) See, Google will learn how to be an Internet service provider by doing! But hey, it's not like Google will be charging San Francisco money — nope, Google intends to install the whole system for free. How can Google make the enterprise worth its while? By charging fees to companies that want to use its newly installed network to offer paid Internet service to San Franciscans who want better service than what's available for free. Oh, and by the way: Google has no plans to share any of its revenue with San Francisco. So does this sound like the deal of the century, or what? Meanwhile, back in Reality: Similar service is already available in San Francisco. It's provided by non-governmental outfits with names like SBC and Earthlink. In other words: there's a market for wireless service. In that market companies compete, with real incentives, to provide first rate service. Keep this word in mind: upgrade. It's what wireless companies have to do to remain competitive. It's what Google would have no incentive to do. And so Google's "gift" to San Franciscans would become unsustainable over time — which has got to be another strong selling point for San Francisco socialists for whom good intentions are always just another way of never having to say: sorry.
"We've looked into free service, and we haven't found a model where free works," said [Earthlink spokesman Donald] Berryman. "At some point free becomes less sustainable because there's no way to upgrade service and the networks when no one's paying for it."
Oh, don't be such a capitalist!
Vince Vasquez, a policy fellow with the Pacific Research Institute, a think tank that supports free markets and receives funding from SBC, said he opposed any municipal involvement in Wi-Fi. Even if it's free, it may exceed the city's proper role in a sector that should be left to private industries, he said. "Our concern is with public money and publicly controlled Internet access," said Vasquez. "We take a lot of caution about how government should intervene in the market."
How quaint, how old-fashioned. And how fundamentally accurate. That said, full speed ahead. Free universal wireless service is a human right!