At the corner of Sanchez and Market, Jason Dorn pulls out an iPhone. He’s at one end point of the access area for San Francisco Free WiFi, a free wireless network that the city launched this past December. It spans Market Street, from Castro Street to the Embarcadero.
Dorn says he’s heard of the free network but doesn’t use it, since he already has an unlimited data plan for his phone. Still, he says he likes the idea.
“What’s not good about free WiFi?” asks Dorn. “We live in San Francisco. We’re married to our phones and to the internet. I don’t see a downside to it.”
A little bit further down the street, near Gough, stands Addison Desantis. He also likes the idea of it, but says it doesn’t apply to him.
“I don’t have any devices I can carry around that have internet. I usually go to to library if I need Internet,” says Desantis.
Jonathan Jones, just a few feet away, is using the WiFi on a small tablet. Jones is homeless.
“It’s very helpful, especially for like, the homeless kids around here,” Jones says. “People that ... don’t get to use computer access at home or can’t get cable WiFi.”
It seems like lots of people like the idea of free WiFi on Market Street, but only some are actually using it. The city spent about $500,000 in labor to start it up. There are also ongoing expenses to maintain the internet connection, but the city has not revealed those amounts. Whatever the cost, advocates say it’s totally worth it.
“I think the cost is small, relative to the benefits,” says Peter Eckersley from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that fights for internet freedom.
Eckersley says it doesn’t matter how many people are using the WiFi, what matters is that the connection is there when anyone needs it.
“Well, we’ve all had the experience of needing WiFi and not being able to get it,” says Eckersley. “There are actually half a dozen or a dozen networks around you in a desert and desperately thirsty while everyone else is sipping on nice cool glasses of ice water. And good communities don’t let their visitors go thirsty.”
“We look at it as a utility, just like running water,” says Ron Vinson from San Francisco’s Department of Technology, which built the Free WiFi network.
Vinson says there are about 500 people drinking from the fountain of free WiFi at a given time. But those numbers are the only data that the city is tracking.
“If you got on the internet I couldn’t be able to say whether you’re searching on google, or if you’re on a mobile app, or if you’re on Skype. We don’t have that information,” says Vinson.
Peter Eckersley from the Electronic Frontier Foundation sees that privacy as another benefit to free WiFi.
“In a lot of countries, including the United States, it’s really hard to get an internet connection without being kind of tracked and stamped and ID-ed when you get onto the network,” explains Eckersley.
And Eckersley sees another benefit: “We certainly saw, for instance, open wireless networks being important in New York during Hurricane Sandy,” he says.
After the storm knocked out electricity and internet connections, people crowded around cafes that still had working wireless. Eckersley says having these open networks can also help emergency responders in a disaster.
“So in the case of San Francisco,” Eckersley says, “we have to plan for, you know, the earthquake that’s gonna happen one day. If the networks are in place beforehand, that will mean that our response will be faster and more coordinated.”
Some find the prospect of free WiFi less exciting, like internet service providers who aren’t interested in competition.
“In many states around the United States, telecommunications companies have actually tried to pass laws to stop cities from building magnificent municipal wireless networks like this,” says Eckersley.
Internet service providers in Pennsylvania, and North and South Carolina have succeeded in passing laws that limit or prohibit municipal broadband. But here in the Bay Area, cities like Sunnyvale, Foster City, and Santa Clara, all already have public WiFi. There are even whole countries that have it, like Estonia and South Korea.
Ron Vinson from the Department of Technology says San Francisco doesn’t have the budget for that right now. So they just started with Market Street.
“Market street obviously is one of our more diverse corridors in the city,” says Vinson. “We’re not trying to compete with the AT&Ts of the world. We’re just trying to level the playing field. To make sure that everyone has access.”
Soon that access will extend to 31 parks in the city through a partnership with Google. The city also plans to expand its broadband network to public schools, offering them internet service at no cost.