Proposition J - WiFi Policy Statement

Voter Guide
This measure appeared on the November 2007 San Francisco ballot.


What it does

This measure is a policy declaration that it should be a policy of San Francisco to accept the creation of a public-private partnership for a citywide wireless network or WiFi. The measure does not mention any particular private company the City should use to provide this service.

Why it is on the ballot

WiFi is a broadband network that uses a radio transmission to provide wireless access to the Internet to anyone within its zone. Unlike other Internet delivery options such as DSL, fiber-optic cables or "dialup," it does not require a fixed infrastructure or digging up streets. Instead, the WiFi network can be delivered across a city through mounting a series of transponders on telephone poles, with each transponder delivering Internet access to a limited surrounding area.

In 2004, Mayor Gavin Newsom declared that increasing digital inclusion was one of his signature policy goals. As a result, he created TechConnect, an initiative to explore how to deliver free wireless Internet throughout San Francisco. In 2005, the City issued a request for information and comment about the development and delivery of a free citywide WiFi network. After a lengthy public process, the City selected a team of EarthLink and Google. The EarthLink/Google team then began negotiations with the City over an agreement to develop and maintain a WiFi network across the entire city.

In January of 2007, the mayor introduced an ordinance to the Board of Supervisors to approve a public/private contract with Earthlink and its partner, Google, to provide citywide WiFi. Between January and March, the Board of Supervisors introduced and subsequently approved a resolution to carry out further analysis on a municipally owned wireless network (as opposed to the public/private network proposed by the mayor).

In April of 2007, the Planning Department determined that the wireless project is exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act's requirements for environmental review and does not require a full environmental impact review. Then in May, the Public Utilities Commission voted unanimously to approve a pole-use agreement allowing EarthLink to use City light poles to deploy the wireless network.

Since that time, the Board of Supervisors has held hearings on the ordinance that is required to approve the public/private partnership with Earthlink, but the board has delayed any decisions. In addition, there has been a challenge to the Planning Department's determination that the proposal is categorically exempt from CEQA.

In late August of 2007, Earthlink gave notice to the City that it was pulling out of the proposed contract with the City. This removes the possibility that Earthlink will be the vendor that provides free WiFi to city residents. Earthlink as a firm had begun to reevaluate the business model of building and operating WiFi systems for municipalities, and determined that it was not cost-effective.


Those who support this measure claim:

  • If voters approve the ballot measure, it would put more pressure on the Board of Supervisors to adopt some kind of WiFi plan (a position that SPUR has endorsed).
  • Broad public support for this policy declaration might help keep Earthlink at the negotiating table.
  • It's a policy declaration for the right reasons:
  • Supports privacy safeguards against the unauthorized sharing of personal information with third parties and the unnecessary retention of WiFi users' location
  • Avoids a franchise relationship between a private entity and the City and County by endorsing a limited contract term
  • Supports indemnity provisions that shift liability away from the City
  • The underlying goal of providing a free wireless broadband service throughout the city through a public-private partnership is a public-policy goal that SPUR has already supported. This measure is a restatement of those goals.


Those who oppose this measure claim:

  • The ballot box should not be used as a political lever in a contract negotiation between the City and a private company.
  • Using the ballot box to pressure a private entity to modify its contract while its current contract with the City has been tied up by political infighting for almost a year sends a poor message to parties interested in doing business with the City. It also further cements the City's reputation as a hard place in which to do business.
  • The City has sufficient challenges in its contracting process with vendors. Setting the precedent that the ballot box is a fair place to debate the merits of proposals from vendors sets a dangerous precedent that can easily be abused by proponents and opponents of specific contracts before the City.
  • This appears to be a purely political measure created to attempt to shed responsibility from the supervisors and mayor for their inability to get a WiFi public-private partnership deal accomplished.
  • This measure mistakenly focuses on WiFi as opposed to the overall need for broadband access and computers in the home. Closing the digital divide is the more important goal and should not be based on selecting a specific technology such as WiFi. Other wireless technologies (such as WiMAX) might be just as appropriate for delivering wireless broadband as WiFi.
  • In general, policy declarations do not belong on the ballot, especially ones related to troubled contract negotiation between the City and County of San Francisco and a private business.
  • This was a last-minute ballot submission that was submitted five minutes before the deadline and had no prior public hearing.

SPUR's analysis

This policy statement was introduced on the final day for submission of ordinances and policy declarations to be included on the November ballot. It was submitted at a time when the mayor was waiting for the Board of Supervisors to approve the proposed contract with Earthlink and the board was waiting for a response from Earthlink about some suggested modifications to the contract.

Now that Earthlink has pulled out of the proposed WiFi contract, the political benefits of the measure are less clear. At the time the measure was submitted, it could have been argued that putting this declaration of policy on the ballot would appear to be a political calculation. The goal of that effort, this logic goes, would have been to obtain a public vote showing broad support throughout San Francisco for a free wireless broadband network provided through a public-private partnership, which might have kept Earthlink at the negotiating table to agree to contract term changes the Board of Supervisors sought.

Because Earthlink has now removed itself from the contract negotiations, the measure could still serve the purpose of demonstrating support for public-private WiFi from a different vendor. When the city issued its request for information several years ago, there were numerous potential vendors (although Earthlink and Google were ultimately selected). It is possible that one of the other prior bidders would emerge as a potential vendor.

Earlier polls conducted since this proposal was initially introduced have showed that between 70 percent and 80 percent of San Franciscans support free wireless broadband service. Despite the board support, there have been numerous critics who sought to modify aspects of the proposed contract - including the speed for the free WiFi, the extent of privacy protections and location-based advertising. Others have sought to hold up the WiFi proposal because of an ideological belief that a municipally run WiFi system is preferable to a public-private partnership. Some have also argued for a different system using fiber-optic cable, which is undoubtedly faster than WiFi but is an entirely different technology with a different goal. Fiber is a fixed infrastructure while WiFi is for mobile applications. As a result of these numerous critiques and perspectives, members of the board have been negotiating to amend the proposed Earthlink contract for most of this year.

Prop. J differs from the specific contract proposal in that it includes a provision that expresses support for maximizing privacy safeguards in the public private WiFi system. It also notes the need to ensure standards of service and that there is agreement on a mutually amendable contract term that avoids a franchise relationship between the private company and the City.

We were split on this issue. While we think that this measure reflects the worst abuses of last-minute ballot introductions and uses the public as a political lever in contract negotiations, we believe that the broader public good of delivering citywide wireless broadband outweighs these serious drawbacks. SPUR has already come out in support of the public–private delivery of WiFi. Passage of this policy declaration would continue our support for citywide wireless and could result in another vendor being selected to deliver a free citywide wireless - whether using WiFi or a different technology. Ultimately, we support the policy goals of the measure but dislike the approach.

SPUR recommends a "Yes" vote on Proposition J.