Say goodbye to Earthlink

Supervisors ought to immediately pursue plans for a municipal broadband network
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EDITORIAL EarthLink, the big technology firm that has been negotiating with San Francisco to build a free wireless network for the city and its residents, just announced a change in corporate strategy. On July 26, CEO Rolla P. Huff told stock analysts that the company would no longer pursue the sort of deal that San Francisco wants; instead, Huff said, EarthLink wants each municipality to "step up" and become an "anchor tenant."

That would mean San Francisco forking over millions of dollars a year to guarantee EarthLink some baseline revenue. It's highly unlikely that the Board of Supervisors would agree to that sort of deal.

There's no immediate indication of what this means for San Francisco. Some analysts think that the side deal between EarthLink and Google will provide enough revenue (with Google as the anchor tenant) to satisfy Huff's demands. That's impossible to say, however: the deal between the two tech companies remains secret (as does too much of this contract).

But there's a chance EarthLink will pull the plug on San Francisco — and if it doesn't, the company has made clear that it doesn't want this sort of contract and won't put much in the way of resources into making it work.

The way the deal was supposed to go down, EarthLink would provide free, if slow, wireless service all over town — although it wouldn't work above the second floor of most buildings and might be difficult to use inside a lot of houses. A faster version would be available for a fee. And Google would sell ads based on users' search terms.

We never liked the plan anyway. It seems foolish for San Francisco to turn such an essential part of its future infrastructure over to a private company. And now that EarthLink may be walking away, the supervisors ought to immediately pursue plans for a municipal broadband network.

Wi-fi is, and ought to be, only a small part of that plan. Wi-fi has limited use and range and is hardly a perfect solution to the digital divide. Sups. Tom Ammiano and Chris Daly have proposed that the city put fiber-optic cables under the streets anytime anyone is tearing up the pavement for other utility work. There are already public cables linking some city offices, and while creating a total network of underground fiber that could reach the door of every home and business would be a big undertaking, it would more than pay for itself in the long term.

While Mayor Gavin Newsom will be looking to blame the board for demanding more concessions from EarthLink, the company has created its own problems. And the Mayor's Office, by agreeing to terms that let EarthLink and Google keep far too much information confidential and by defying the requests of community activists for more information about the deal, just made things worse.

At this point, with the economic model that Newsom and EarthLink identified losing credibility, the supervisors should make it clear: No more private contractors. No more outsourcing infrastructure. San Francisco needs municipal broadband — with wi-fi and fiber-optic cables — and the time to get started is now. *