While there's been some legitimate skepticism over the messy and haphazard process being used in San Francisco to set up a muni-WiFi offering, ever since Earthlink and Google teamed up on the bid, most people considered them the clear front-runners. So, it's barely worth mentioning that, indeed, the city has announced that the combined Earthlink/Google proposal makes the most sense. Of course, what's most interesting here is that it highlights how muni-WiFi is not really muni-WiFi. Almost every so-called "muni-WiFi" offering is really a commercial, for-profit, venture. The only "muni" aspect to it is that the city is handing over rights-of-way to place access points, demanding some measure of ubiquitous coverage and reasonable pricing for less well-off citizens while also looking for ways that public service officials can benefit from the service as well. The real question will be just how willing the winners of these systems will be to open their networks up to others. In this deal, Earthlink is effectively opening up the network they would build to Google to offer a free, ad-supported WiFi that would in some ways compete with Earthlink's own cheap, but still fee-based, WiFi. This is also the same model Earthlink is using in Philadelphia, where it has won that city's "muni-WiFi" bid. In a lot of ways, this makes the most sense. It doesn't make sense for every potential provider to go around getting the right-of-way rights and putting up access points -- but if the local government is going to let one commercial entity do so, why not allow them to let other providers offer service on that network at a reasonable price as the tradeoff? While we're still not convinced that muni-WiFi is the right technology for the job, it is good to see that the various muni-WiFi offerings are increasingly being agreed to under more reasonable terms than many critics originally envisioned.
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