By Marisa Lagos, SF Chronicle
San Francisco is finally getting free Wi-Fi – at least in 31 city parks.
Six years after a deal to blanket the city fell apart, Supervisor Mark Farrell and Google will announce a plan Wednesday to bring public wireless Internet access, on the technology company’s dime, to parks, recreation centers and plazas across San Francisco. The $600,000 gift from Google will cover the costs of the equipment, installation and maintenance of wireless capabilities for two years.
It will allow residents to work from Mission Dolores Park, let visitors download information to their mobile devices in Civic Center Plaza and make it easier for parents to sign their children up for recreation programs at centers from the Excelsior district to Bernal Heights, Chinatown, the Marina and the Sunset District. In some of those areas, it may be the easiest place to find Internet access, Farrell said.
“San Francisco should be a leader for bringing technology solutions to its residents and improving their quality of life on a day-to-day basis,” Farrell said. “There are so many added benefits – it will help bridge the digital divide, it will empower local residents and community groups who will have access at local parks, and it will help Recreation and Park Department staff sign up kids for camps and recreation programs with Internet speed many people would be shocked doesn’t already exist.”
Mayor Ed Lee praised the plan as a “great example” of the “public-private partnerships (that) are key to the delivery of better services for our residents in the 21st century.”
A handful of other city properties are wired for free Internet access, including parts of City Hall, San Francisco International Airport and public housing developments. The city is also looking into offering access along the Market Street corridor. But citywide access, which former Mayor Gavin Newsom proposed in 2007, has yet to come to fruition. A proposed deal between the city, Earthlink and Google back then collapsed amid political bickering between the mayor and the Board of Supervisors and concerns over the terms of the contract.
A late adopter
Despite being a hub for tech companies -and City Hall’s location 35 miles from Google headquarters – San Francisco has been a surprisingly slow adopter in some ways. For example, many older recreation facilities still use dial-up connections, said Recreation and Park Director Phil Ginsburg.
“We really are trying to make our parks system as technologically robust as we can, and this is going to go a long way,” he said. “This is a best practice; New York City parks have Wi-Fi, in Paris every city park has Wi-Fi. We want to make it easier for people to spend more time in parks and enjoy them. … This is a great equalizer.”
Veronica Bell, a senior manager for public policy and government relations at Google, said the company is “proud to provide free Wi-Fi in San Francisco, a city where thousands of its employees work and live.
“We hope that free Wi-Fi will be a resource that the city and other local groups will be able to use in their efforts to bridge the digital divide and make their community stronger,” she said in a statement. The company has funded Wi-Fi projects in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood and at Boston’s South Station.
Taking the lead
Farrell said he approached Google’s government relations team more than two years ago to reopen discussions about free Wi-Fi. He has a personal relationship with a member of that team, he said.
“Naturally they were hesitant because of what happened a number of years ago, but at the same time there was interest,” he said. “The sentiment was, since trying to do citywide Wi-Fi like before might be met with resistance, let’s pick off an area that makes a ton of sense and would make a huge difference to residents’ daily lives. If we get it done right, we can use it as a model moving forward, ultimately with the goal of free Wi-Fi across the city.”
City officials worked hard to ensure that the program will reach “all across San Francisco” and affect plazas and parks that get the most use, Farrell said.
And it’s important to note that the proposal is a gift from Google to the city’s Department of Technology, “with no strings attached,” he said.
“A large part of why the prior efforts failed was, the public was skeptical of a business model in which companies would be profiting.”
Google has enlisted Sf.citi, an association of San Francisco tech companies founded by angel investor Ron Conway, to help administer the program, including managing equipment installation and maintenance and doing community outreach.
The project must be approved by the Planning Department; the Recreation and Parks Commission will also have to approve an agreement with the Department of Technology, and the Board of Supervisors will have to accept the gift. Farrell said he expects that installation could begin by November and be finished by April.
Recreation and Park Department properties that will receive free wireless through a gift from Google:
— Alamo Square
— Balboa Park
— Bernal Heights Recreation Center
— Boeddeker Park
— Chinese Recreation Center
— Civic Center Plaza
— Corona Heights
— Crocker Amazon Playground
— Duboce Park
— Eureka Valley Recreation Center
— Gene Friend Recreation Center
— Hamilton Recreation Center
— Huntington Park
— Joseph Lee Recreation Center
— Embarcadero Plaza
— Margaret S. Hayward Playground
— Marina Green
— Minnie and Lovie Ward Recreation Center
— Mission Dolores Park
— Mission Recreation Center
— Palega Playground
— Portsmouth Square
— Richmond Recreation Center
— St. Mary’s Recreation Center
— St. Mary’s Square
— Sue Bierman Park
— Sunnyside Playground
— Sunset Playground
— Tenderloin Recreation Center
— Upper Noe Recreation Center
— Washington Square
Marisa Lagos is a SF Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: email@example.com