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WiFi competition in S.F.

Posted by iTech - 2005-10-04

Google may have the cachet, but it faces nearly two dozen competitors -- some of them serious players in the telecom business -- that have expressed interest in bringing free or cheap wireless Internet access to San Francisco.

The city Monday released the name of 24 companies that responded to its call for suggestions on how to set up public access throughout the city. Among the companies that responded by Friday's deadline were wireless giant Cingular and Internet service provider Earthlink. Equipment makers Ericsson, Nortel, Motorola and Cisco also were on the list, either on their own or with a partner.

Meanwhile, the two biggest broadband providers to the city -- Comcast and SBC -- were confident that Google's proposal to give wireless Internet access to San Franciscans for free was no substitute for what they could offer in terms of speed, content and convenience. SBC provides Internet access jointly with Yahoo.

``We're comfortable that SBC-Yahoo is an industry leader that provides not just access but all this premium content, reliability and value,'' said SBC spokesman John Britton.

Andrew Johnson of Comcast said that consumers, more and more are demanding high-quality video over the Internet.

``This new competitor really hasn't had us change our business plan,'' he said. ``We think people are going to look for speed. Hands down, we're the winner.''

Comcast and SBC, the area's dominant cable and phone providers, have an advantage in terms of already reaching a huge base of customers with multiple services -- television, Internet access and phone service -- from one source. SBC offers cellular phone service as well. Rumors of Comcast's and SBC's demise at the hands of Google are greatly exaggerated, said Jeff Kagan, an independent telecommunications industry analyst.

``The stories that I'm reading that are saying it's the death knell to the cable and phone companies -- they don't get it,'' Kagan said. ``This is going to be an additional service to phone and cable.''

At the same time, as prices go, it's hard to beat free. And Google's proposal, if accepted, could press Comcast and SBC -- already in an Internet-access price war -- into giving customers even deeper discounts, analysts say.

``A new player like Google coming in is disruptive, and the result might be bringing data and voice, wireless and wireline prices down to a 21st century cost,'' said Dave Burstein, editor of the DSL Prime industry newsletter.

Google's official proposal was submitted Friday. City officials sounded the call for proposals in August, and said Monday they would take the next step on the question within 30 days -- whether by making an official call for bids or by entering into negotiations with one of the 24 companies that already responded.

The Google proposal was not made public as of late Monday, and a Google representative did not return a phone call seeking more information on it.

Business 2.0 magazine reporter Om Malik reported Friday that Google's proposal calls for Internet download speeds of 300 kilobits per second, slow in comparison to Comcast's and SBC's rates. Comcast offers download speeds of 4 megabits per second for $24.95 a month in many areas, and SBC offers 1.5 megabits for $14.95 a month. Both offers are temporary, promotional prices.

Yet 300 kilobits per second is fine for checking e-mail and for doing light Web surfing, Burstein said. And having a citywide system would fill a communications hole that's become all too clear in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Burstein said.

``People died because their phones couldn't connect,'' he said, referring to some who died along the Gulf Coast. ``Making sure basic phone service is cheap enough for everyone saves lives. San Francisco can have an earthquake any day.''

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