Why San Diego's wi-fi system lags behind Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle

Cox Communications and Time Warner not cheap

Anybody who's tried to sign on to municipal Wi-Fi in San Diego knows there isn't any. While other big cities like Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Seattle forge ahead with ambitious plans to provide residents and visitors with cheap and easy access to the computer wireless service, the City of San Diego has relegated the matter to a small subcommittee of the mayor's Science and Technology Commission, where it has seemingly languished for over a year. Well, not quite. In the secretive fashion typical of the operating style of GOP mayor Jerry Sanders, it turns out that the City has been quietly negotiating for at least six months with EarthLink Municipal Networks, the Atlanta-based firm that is building systems in Philadelphia and San Francisco, among other cities.

In Philadelphia, where the firm is building out a 135-square-mile Wi-Fi "mesh" network, as many as 300,000 households and businesses will be able to go online by the end of this summer, EarthLink says. The company is financing and building the Philadelphia system under a deal it reached with Wireless Philadelphia, a nonprofit the city set up to get the project off the ground. Though Wi-Fi will be free in some public spaces, including Norris Square and a portion of South Philly, a monthly contract at the system's standard speed of one megabyte per second will run $19.95; three megabytes per second will cost an extra $2. Low-income residents will be charged only $9.95. That's a lot cheaper than the rates offered by San Diego cable providers Cox Communications and Time Warner, who are said to be gearing up to fight any kind of similar arrangement that might emerge here. Verizon Wireless and other mobile carriers who offer data services equivalent to Wi-Fi can also be expected to lobby against free or low-priced service plans.

Meanwhile, up in San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom announced in April that his city had signed an agreement with EarthLink to set up a free, advertiser-supported Wi-Fi system; fees will be levied for faster, ad-free service, though there will also be price breaks for those with lower incomes. In a news release outlining the deal, the mayor noted that the agreement was "the result of a uniquely transparent process noteworthy for the fact that all documents were posted online regularly." Before entering into discussions with EarthLink, Newsom added, the city issued a "Request for Information/Comment, which solicited extensive public input including over 300 public comments and 26 proposals from the private and non-profit sectors for how best to provide affordable, universal Wi-Fi."

Not so in San Diego, where EarthLink began talking to the City sometime last year without any notice to the public. A recent request under the state's Public Records Act for documents regarding the ongoing negotiations was met with a stony response from deputy city attorney Steven R. Lastomirsky, who wrote in a May 25 letter that "the public interest in nondisclosure outweighs the interest in disclosure."

After it was pointed out to Lastomirsky that the mayor's Wi-Fi study group had been given a brief report about the existence of the EarthLink proposal earlier this year, he relented slightly and provided a copy of a "non-binding letter of intent," dated last December 19, from EarthLink to the City. "The attached negotiation issue list describes the progress of our discussions towards a Definitive Agreement," wrote Donald B. Berryman, an EarthLink executive vice president. "Any Definitive Agreement will include terms and conditions that are customary for such transactions." Rick Reynolds, the mayor's assistant chief operating officer, cosigned the agreement. Lastomirsky declined to turn over the issue list mentioned in the contract, referring all questions to Matt McGarvey, the City's chief information officer, who didn't return calls.

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