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San Francisco gives its main street free Wi-Fi, eyes citywide service

Stephen Lawson | Dec. 17, 2013
The outdoor network was built using donated equipment from Ruckus Wireless.

The open network, with the SSID "_San Francisco_Free_WiFi," won't require any sign-on information from users. Like many of the tech startups surfacing around San Francisco these days, the city has no revenue model for its would-be disruptive technology. It simply wants to take the lead in deploying a type of service that Touitou thinks will be ubiquitous in all cities eventually.

The Market Street network by itself is no small thing. Stretching about three miles along the multilane thoroughfare, it is designed to provide an average of at least 2Mbps downstream and 1Mbps upstream throughout, with peak speeds as high as 50Mbps downstream depending on the number of users in the area. The city deployed the Ruckus ZoneFlex 7782-S outdoor access points on its own assets, such as traffic light poles, at an out-of-pocket cost of about US$500,000.

"Why Market Street? It's a gold corridor," Touitou said. The street bisects the eastern half of the city and is a major corridor for transit, as well as hosting numerous outdoor seating areas. The so-called Mid-Market area is home to Twitter's new headquarters and the focus of a major city rejuvenation project aimed at tech startups. On busy parts of Market Street, pedestrians frequently pass each other on the sidewalk with their eyes glued to smartphones and tablets.

If the current project was quick and relatively inexpensive, the citywide network it's supposed to set in motion will take much more money and organization. Still, the city plans to keep leveraging its own assets and own any future network that's built out.

The key to making a wider network happen may be service providers' growing need for capacity in areas packed with people using mobile devices, Touitou said. Though much of the city is well covered by cellular networks, mobile operators are looking for ways to offload traffic from their own frequencies to public Wi-Fi networks running on unlicensed spectrum, he said.

The promise of a citywide offload network might entice one or more mobile operators to either fund the wider rollout or pay the city for access to its capacity over time, Touitou said. The system would be open to any service provider, including carriers, cable operators and independent local competitors, he said.

That reflects one of the lessons learned from San Francisco's earlier flirtation with citywide Wi-Fi, said Ron Vinson, the chief marketing officer of the city's department of technology. Critics called the Earthlink-Google project a city giveaway to favored corporations. The absence of sign-in requirements should help to ease other past concerns about user privacy, he said.

The city might also look for sponsors to lend their brands to the network, Touitou said. The citywide system might be advertised as "powered by" a certain entity, but that sponsor wouldn't necessarily be involved in the network or service, he said.


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