Liz Gannes

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San Francisco Gets Fast, Free Public Wi-Fi on Market Street

Nearly 10 years after international tech hub San Francisco first said it wanted to offer free public Wi-Fi, the city’s first big deployment is finally being unveiled today. There’s a new mayor and a new tech boom in town, and — perhaps most importantly — the technology for providing reliable, high-capacity access has improved dramatically over the past decade.

Access points on Market Street. (They have since been painted green to better blend in with the surroundings.)

San Francisco will offer free Internet access along the Market Street corridor, from the Embarcadero to the Castro, under the network name “_San_Francisco_Free_WiFi” (with the awkward punctuation so as to show up first in search results).

The network is built to reach speeds of up to 50 Mbps both up and downstream, better than what many people receive in their own homes. (Of course, factors like the device used, congestion on the network and the physical distance to the access point may lower the speed.)

Market Street is kind of an odd place for a high-speed network, given it has minimal outdoor seating; it is more of a transportation channel than a destination. But it links together “a diversity of people along the corridor,” said San Francisco CIO Marc Touitou. That includes the financial district, the tourist and shopping destination of Union Square, the odd mix of offices for tech companies like Twitter and the very poor along mid-Market, and up to the culture and nightlife center of the Castro.

On the other hand, Wi-Fi is increasingly useful for people on the go. For instance, service providers like Republic Wireless now have super cheap plans that bridge voice calls from Wi-Fi to cellular without dropping. Paired with free, fast Wi-Fi, this kind of service could be seriously helpful for the city’s poorest residents.

“It’s not a gadget; it’s not a luxury; it’s not a nice-to-have,” said Touitou. “It’s a basic service of connectivity.”

But that raises another question — the growing phenomenon of people walking down the street, absorbed in their phones, making themselves targets for theft. Mobile devices accounted for the majority of robberies in American cities last year.

That’s a problem, Touitou admitted. “As always, we should advise people to be careful with anything with value,” he said, adding that handset makers and carriers need to implement better ways to disable stolen devices. And of course, the network is open — so people may want to refrain from using it for sensitive online activities.

Touitou noted that the service won’t interrupt users with advertising, and will recognize repeat users who have already accepted the terms and conditions.

The Market Street project is being built with equipment donated by Ruckus Wireless, which is also powering high-speed networks in San Jose, Calif.; Austin, Texas; and for the World Cup in Brazil.

About 55 Ruckus access points have already been mounted in San Francisco, primarily on traffic poles, with a goal of 170 eventually installed. The city is also paying $500,000 out of pocket to implement the project, which started this July.

That said, this crowning achievement is only as good as the existing infrastructure and the busy conduits along Market Street allow, said Touitou.

It won’t be the fastest free municipal Wi-Fi in the world, much as the city would love the bragging rights. San Jose, for example, has a peering point smack in the middle of the city, so there’s really no competing.

Touitou described the Market Street corridor as a test project. It is to be followed in the coming months by wireless access in 31 of San Francisco’s city parks, a project for which Google has already donated $600,000. (Google, by the way, along with Earthlink, had won the original San Francisco muni wireless project in 2006, which failed before it ever even launched.) If all goes well, other channels like the Embarcadero and Third Street will likely get public Wi-Fi as well, Touitou said.

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