Google wrote grandly of the importance of Wi-Fi in a proposal for free wireless in San Francisco that was made public on the Web Monday, but the search company downplayed its own potential role in delivering Internet service.

The proposal, one of 26 responses from interested companies to the city's request for information and comment on the idea of a citywide wireless Internet service, calls for Google to offer free Wi-Fi service to all residents and visitors. Advertisements targeted to users' locations would help support the project, in which other Internet service providers could also buy access wholesale and sell special services to end users, Google said.

"We believe that ubiquitous, affordable Internet access is a crucial aspect of humanity’s social and economic development, and that working to supply free Wi-Fi is a major step in that direction," Google's response said. "However, we also believe that there will never be either one form of online connectivity or one company that exclusively provides it."

Google's fibre ambitions?
Some recent news reports have raised the spectre of Google muscling in on existing broadband providers through widespread free wireless Internet access, using optical fibre capacity to create a backbone network. In the document posted Monday, Google referred to the fibre network, but in a more limited context.

"It takes thousands of computers and miles of fibre optic cable to globally deliver responses to your search queries within fractions of a second," Google wrote in the proposal. "We are confident that we can replicate the success of this infrastructure in the world of Wi-Fi for the city of San Francisco."

San Francisco could be a test bed for location-based applications and services delivered over Wi-Fi, the company wrote. In fact, Google already is working with partners to provide free Wi-Fi in some parts of the city, and it offers access in a few locations near its Mountain View, California, headquarters.

Feeva, a software company in San Francisco that submitted its own response to the city's request, said it joined with Google and the city in March to create two free municipal wireless networks. Feeva's software can identify the location of a user on a wireless network, the device being used for access, and preferences provided by the user, according to its submission. By providing that data to advertisers - while preserving the user's anonymity - the service provider can generate enough revenue to cover the cost of the network, according to Feeva.

Low speed is free, high speed will cost
Google proposed to build an IEEE 802.11b/g Wi-Fi mesh network that delivers more than 1 Mbit/ps of capacity throughout the city. Anyone in the city could get access free at speeds as high as 300 kbit/s, and Google or third parties could sell access at higher speeds, possibly as high as 3 Mbit/s. The 300 kbit/s free service could be reached at street level, in the front room of a home or business, and on the first few floors of a building. Consumers might be encouraged to use customer premises equipment for better indoor reception, Google said. The city would give Google access to about 1,900 lamp posts for placing access points, which would also be located on some buildings.

Google would also provide a separate VLAN (virtual LAN) for municipal agencies' own traffic to help ensure delivery and mitigate congestion. The city could use it free at 300 kbiit/s.

Wireless Facilities, an engineering, network services and technical outsourcing company in San Diego, would design and deploy the network, according to Google's proposal. The network would eventually support 802.11n, the future wireless LAN technology designed for more than 100 Mbit/s throughput, once that is available, Google said.

A live service in six months
Last month, the city sought comments from the public as well as information from potential builders or operators of a service. After responses came in early this month, Mayor Gavin Newsom said a committee would study the input for about three weeks and present its findings to him. After that, the city will request actual plans and bids to provide a service. The city could adopt one proposal or put together its own plan from parts of several proposals. If the political process goes smoothly, a service could go live within five or six months, Newsom said.

Though Google's plan has drawn the most attention, information also was posted Monday on plans by other major players.

  • EarthLink, which recently won the contract to provide Philadelphia's municipal wireless network, proposed offering 1 Mbit/s residential broadband for less than US$20 per month, with subsidies for lower cost service to economically disadvantaged residents. EarthLink would finance, own, deploy and operate the network but also sell wholesale access to third-party providers.
  • MetroFi said it would build a Wi-Fi mesh network for a free, advertising-supported best-effort public service and a $19.95 per month, 1 Mbit/s symmetric residential broadband service. A pre-WiMax mesh network would provide service at up to 3 Mbit/s to businesses. Both networks would be built at no cost to the city.
  • Motorola would use Wi-Fi on unlicensed frequencies for consumer and public service access along with licensed frequencies for a public-safety network that could be used in vehicles at more than 100 miles per hour. ISPs (Internet service providers) could buy access wholesale and offer a variety of services on the public network.
  • SFLan, a nonprofit project of the Internet Archive that has been providing free Wi-Fi in the city since 1998, proposed that the city set up an "exchange" to connect many wireless ISPs and community organisations that provide service to end users. Solar-powered access points with wireless backbone connections would allow the citywide local network to keep working at a reduced capacity in case of disaster, SFLan said. The city's exchange network could be paid for by general funds or a bond issue. An infrastructure covering 95 percent of the city would cost less than $1 million, according to SFLan. It opposes the use of captive portals for signing on to the network, because it envisions non-Web uses such as VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol) and video cameras.