Google ponies up $600,000 for free Wi-Fi in San Francisco

Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) offered to donate $600,000 to install free Wi-Fi hotspots in 31 public spaces around San Francisco, but the city, concerned about ongoing costs it might have to shoulder, is approaching the offer cautiously.

The donation would only cover equipment, installation, and maintenance of the wireless network for two years, after which the city would have to come up with some way of funding ongoing network maintenance, estimated to cost $50,000 per year.

If approved, installation of the hotspots will commence in December and the 31 sites, which include parks, playgrounds, and recreation centers, will begin this December. All 31 would then be available for use in spring 2014.

This is not Google's first public Wi-Fi outreach effort in San Francisco. Back in 2005, the company joined with Earthlink on a bid to build a San Francisco-wide free Wi-Fi network. The San Francisco Municipal Wireless network, as it was called, was proposed by former city mayor Gavin Newsom during the first heyday of municipal Wi-Fi deployments. The plan was put to rest in September 2007 as muni Wi-Fi networks showed signs of struggle and Earthlink bailed on the project.

Unlike the free Wi-Fi network Google rolled out years ago in its hometown of Mountain View, Calif.--which some local citizens contend has become increasingly unreliable--Google does not intend to own or manage the San Francisco network. Angel investor Ron Conway, described as a political ally of San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, is coordinating the project through his nonprofit San Francisco Citizens Initiative for Technology and Innovation (

Equipment installation will be handled by iNet using existing city infrastructure such as utility poles, fiber-optic cables and radio towers, said the San Francisco Examiner. Upon full deployment, the system would be handed over to the Department of Technology as a gift.

It is surprising to some that a world business and tourist destination such as San Francisco does not have any free city-sponsored Wi-Fi services, though there are plenty of cafes and other locations that do offer free Wi-Fi. "There are cities not only here in the U.S. but in many, many foreign countries where free Wi-Fi is ubiquitous. We have a lot of work to do," city Supervisor Mark Farrell told Reuters.

Google's grant offer to San Francisco is part of an ongoing campaign by the company to encourage public Wi-Fi deployments, particularly near areas where Google has offices and data centers. One of the most publicized deployments announced this year is in Manhattan's southwest Chelsea neighborhood, where Google's second-largest office, sometimes referred to as Googleplex East, is located.

Google collaborated with nonprofit neighborhood redevelopment corporation The Chelsea Improvement Company on the project, which will become the first wired neighborhood in Manhattan and the largest contiguous Wi-Fi network in New York City.

On the same day the San Francisco Wi-Fi offer was announced, Bloomberg reported that Google has agreed to expand its San Francisco office space at Morgan Stanley's Hills Plaza building. A person described as having direct knowledge of the deal said it would be the city's biggest lease transaction of 2013. The planned 10-year lease for 350,000 square feet will increase Google's space at the waterfront location by 25 percent, said the person.

Katelin Jabbari, a Google spokeswoman, declined to comment to Bloomberg regarding the company's lease plans.

For more:
- see this San Francisco Board of Supervisors release
- see this San Francisco Examiner article
- see this Reuters article
- see this PCMag article
- see this Bloomberg article
- see this TechCrunch article

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