Google, EarthLink team for SF Wi-Fi plan

Google Inc. has teamed up with EarthLink Inc. to craft a citywide Wi-Fi proposal for San Francisco, which closed the RFP (request for proposal) process for its wireless broadband initiative on Tuesday.

Cisco Systems Inc. and IBM Corp. have also gotten into the act, joining in on a proposal involving a nonprofit company called SeaKay Inc., according to the city. San Francisco also received four other submissions, from Communications Bridge Global, MetroFi Inc., NextWLAN Corp. and Razortooth Communications LLP.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom kicked off the city’s drive for public wireless Internet access in October 2004, and Google put itself in the spotlight last year with a reply to the city’s initial request for information and comment. The Mountain View, California, search engine company proposed building a network at no cost to the city and offering a free service supported by targeted, location-based advertising.

EarthLink, also the network owner and operator in Philadelphia’s controversial citywide Wi-Fi plan, submitted its own response at that time. For San Francisco’s formal RFP process, the two companies joined up.

The RFP process, which sought detailed plans for a wireless service that would cover 95 percent of the city outdoors and reach most indoor users, ended at 5 p.m. Tuesday. Now a special panel will evaluate the plans and make recommendations by early April, and the city’s Department of Telecommunications and Information Services hopes to then start negotiating with the winning bidder.

EarthLink teamed up with Google because it is based near San Francisco and brings its own capabilities to the project, said Bill Tolpegin, vice president of development and planning for municipal networks at EarthLink, in Atlanta.

Using the same IEEE 802.11g network, EarthLink would provide a subscription-based service with throughput of about 1M bps (bits per second) while Google would offer a free service at about 300K bps, Tolpegin said.

The companies would also sell wholesale access to other ISPs (Internet service providers) that could resell services to end users. As in Philadelphia, the Wi-Fi portion of the network would be built using Tropos Networks Inc. equipment.

For the “backhaul” infrastructure behind the Wi-Fi access points, the companies will start with Motorola Inc.’s Canopy wireless technology and add in other elements as needed, he said. Both companies will invest in both building and operating the network, Tolpegin said.

In addition to providing traditional Internet access to end users, the companies plan to support other types of services, which could include specialized devices such as music players or location tags, Tolpegin said.

SeaKay, based in San Francisco, has joined with Cisco for the San Francisco Metro Connect project, according to a statement on SeaKay’s Web site. Although IBM is listed with them in the city’s release, SeaKay’s statement doesn’t mention IBM.

SF Metro Connect would operate under SeaKay’s fiscal sponsorship and would build a wireless network using Cisco equipment, though that network would be technologically agnostic, SeaKay said. The project would allow multiple ISPs and equipment suppliers to offer hardware and content.

SF Metro Connect has considered a number of business models, including a user fee-based system and a third-party funded model including public and private investment and donations of equipment, expertise and services. In conjunction with Cisco’s Networking Academies, the project would include training city residents in deploying and maintaining a wireless network.

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