San Franciso Named Largest WiFi User In The U.S.
Justin Sullivan  /  Getty Images file
Customers at the Canvas Cafe take advantage of free wireless "wi-fi" internet access in San Francisco.
updated 8/17/2005 10:39:19 AM ET 2005-08-17T14:39:19

Officials are looking for ways to make the entire 49-square mile city a free -- or at least cheap -- Wi-Fi zone.

Taking a step toward bridging the "digital divide" between the tech-savvy and those who can't afford computers, the city government has issued guidelines for a plan to "ensure universal, affordable wireless broadband access for all San Franciscans."

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom said the city is soliciting ideas for an ambitious system that would put Wi-Fi in the hands of people whether they are working in a high-rise office tower, riding on a cable car or living in a low-income housing project.

The invitation, extended to nonprofit groups and businesses that could eventually bid on the project, puts San Francisco among a handful of major U.S. cities tackling the technological and political challenges of offering Internet service to its residents on such a wide scale.

"We are going to be able to wire the city in a dynamic way so the entire city is a hot zone, but we are also going to be able to provide equipment in an unprecedented way," Newsom said.

Dell and other computer makers already have pledged thousands of computers that will be given to residents of poorer neighborhoods, he said.

Philadelphia, the first big city to work on extending wireless Internet service throughout the city, is poised to choose a vendor to design, deploy and maintain a system that will cover the city's 135 square miles. Portland, Ore., Minneapolis, Charleston, S.C., and Orlando, Fla., also are at various stages in the same process.

According to an annual ranking compiled by chip maker Intel Corp., San Francisco ranks just behind Seattle as the nation's most "unwired city" in America, thanks to a ubiquity of cafes and restaurants that offer Wi-Fi.

Last year, the city erected antennas to make one of its most popular tourist destinations, Union Square, a free hot spot, and three others are set to go up later this year. Responses to the city's request for information are due in six weeks and Newsom said he hopes to have the citywide Wi-Fi plan at least partly "manifested" within six months.

"Cities are starting to realize this is not a 'nice to have' anymore," said Paul Butcher, Intel's state and local government marketing manager. "To operate efficiently as a government, to enable business to compete and provide adequate resources to cities, you pretty much have to do this."

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