Today, through a deal brokered by San Francisco Supervisor Mark Ferrell, Google announced that it will donate $600,000 to bring free wireless service to the public in 31 San Francisco parks, recreational centers and plazas. This free WiFi service in the City’s parks will enhance park users’ ability to obtain government benefits and services and other information available from the Internet from wireless devices like laptops, tablets, and smartphones.
The Google donation will be made to the San Francisco Citizens Initiative for Technology and Innovation (sf.citi), a 501(c)6 non-profit group headed by Ron Conway. Sf.citi’s members are tech companies who wish to leverage the power of the technology community around civic action. The proposal is that sf.citi will contract with wireless company iNet to install the necessary WiFi equipment using municipally-owned infrastructure, fiber, and right-of-ways, and then present the finished system to the Department of Technology of the City and County of San Francisco as a gift. Approvals are required by the Recreation and Parks Commission, the Planning Department, and the Board of Supervisors. The system is hoped to be initiated by year’s end and operating by Spring 2014.
In a statement, Google’s spokesperson, Veronica Bell, said that Google was hopeful the city and local groups will use the free WiFi to bridge the digital divide and strengthen their community. The Google donation will cover the costs of the equipment, installation and maintenance for two years. It is presumed that the city will foot the maintenance costs thereafter.
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee praised the initiative as a great example of public-private partnerships that help bring better services to his city’s residents in the 21st century. Mayor Lee is a friend of the tech industry in San Francisco, placing a strong focus on making the city friendly to tech companies, workers and users.
Supervisor Farrell was quick to emphasize that the chosen 31 parks and plazas span the city including Chinatown and the Tenderloin and are focused on public spaces that get the most use. He further stated that the Google money was strictly a gift, with no strings attached.
This year, the San Francisco Department of Technology is also working on a free wireless network along Market Street that would be installed and operated by it. This will enhance the City’s work to revitalize this area with tech start-ups.
Free WiFi hotspots help close the digital divide for low income and homeless persons, who may not otherwise be able to afford Internet access but own a wireless device, such as a smart phone or tablet device. This access in public spaces also takes a load off community centers and libraries that provide free Internet access and computers to the public, but are stressed by budget shortfalls.
This news is no doubt welcomed by former San Francisco Mayor and now Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, who originally worked with Earthlink and Google six years ago to bring a free public wireless system to San Francisco. Later Earthlink withdrew from the deal, amid much public controversy.