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Making (Radio) Waves 

The mayor's Wi-Fi plan is about to have its signal blocked by a group of activists

Wednesday, Mar 28 2007
Thin, polite, deliberate, and articulate Doug Loranger offers me a seat in his Western Addition flat and turns on a television set to a video he made promoting his quest to halt construction of cellular telephone antennas.

Loranger feels so strongly that radio emissions from the towers might cause ailments such as brain cancer that fighting them has become a time-consuming hobby. He drew on skills learned as a film school student to create this core public-relations tool, in which he interviews other San Franciscans opposed to radio-wave propagation, and shows how they fought cell tower construction.

For all the passion behind Loranger's belief, however, I was perplexed by how long it took his documentary to cut to the chase.

Instead of hearing all about cellphone-tower death rays, minutes dragged by as I learned about how a middle-aged Chinese community activist volunteers as a City Hall docent, and about the different jobs a computer specialist had held during the last couple decades.

Then it occurred to me: Loranger seemed to be showing viewers that his anti-radio-wave activist friends weren't crazy. They had normal lives, jobs, and friends. Very few scientists who study the issue believe radio waves from cellphone towers are dangerous. So anti-radio-wave activists are sometimes lumped together with UFO and other conspiracy nuts.

My next thought: I wondered if Gavin Newsom and his pal Sergey Brin know that these public-image-impaired San Franciscans are poised to kick their asses. Loranger has plans to strike a deathblow against a mayor-backed plan whereby Google and EarthLink would provide free Wi-Fi Internet access citywide. Loranger and his friends fear the Wi-Fi plan would broadcast more hated radio waves.

Separately, Loranger's cause is aided by activists who believe, for reasons having nothing to do with radio waves, that it would be better to install an expensive, city-owned fiber network. They have obtained backing on the Board of Supervisors to kill the mayor's Wi-Fi plan.

This is a bummer for San Francisco. Here in the world's most Internet-hooked city, free citywide Wi-Fi would have been like free Guinness for Dubliners.

But it's also fitting justice for Newsom, who earned his current political popularity based on a 2004 symbolic protest about gay marriage, which produced no tangible results. Yet he somehow didn't learn that San Franciscans' zest for aimless rebellion is a two-edged sword. He never anticipated, and now doesn't know what to do about, two separate, misguided citizen movements working to shut down his free Wi-Fi plan.

By failing to learn from his own social-protest success, Newsom may go down in history as so inept he couldn't execute a plan to give away what amounts to free beer.

In 2004, our just-elected mayor gained national notoriety by announcing that he would put free high-speed Internet in every pot. The idea seemed downright magical. San Francisco was a tech capital. The mayor was young and attractive. Magazine editors scheduled Newsom photo shoots.

After three years of fits, starts, and negotiations, the mayor announced a contract in January between the city, EarthLink and Google, by which EarthLink would pay the city $2 million over four years for the right to build, own, and maintain a citywide Wi-Fi network. Google would provide free Internet access at a relatively slow speed sufficient for Web browsing and e-mail. For a $22 upcharge, EarthLink would provide a faster service useful for things such as Internet telephony, videos, and such.

To my mind, that's fantastic. I pay $60 per month now for high-speed Internet. The system Newsom's backing would force players such as Comcast and SBC to swiftly mark down their prices to the $20 range. A pricing and features war would ensue. The resulting universal broadband would in turn create opportunities for new Internet business models, perhaps spawning a 1990s-like job boom.

However, for every good new thing in San Francisco, there is an army of protesters angry that it's not the perfect thing.

Yet Newsom ignored this fact. He didn't hold meetings with members of the Board of Supervisors to negotiate the shape his Wi-Fi plan would take, nor give them any opportunities to take credit for some of it themselves.

Most of the Board is staffed by Newsom's political opponents who are eager to the possibility of killing policies with his name-stamp on them, even good ones.

In that spirit, Supervisors Jake McGoldrick and Tom Ammiano are working separately from Loranger to kill Newsom's Wi-Fi plan. In its place, they're attempting to revive a plan Ammiano floated in 2004 to create a city-owned fiber-optic cable network to compete with private networks already in place.

Board members ordered the city budget analyst to study the idea, and he issued a report saying the idea was theoretically viable. A private nonprofit group is also studying the idea at S.F. officials' behest.

When I looked into Ammiano's plan back in 2004, I found that experts in the field of city-owned communications networks said laying a city-owned fiber-optic would be an expensive, unworkable boondoggle in San Francisco.

Ammiano's own aide referred me to experts who ended up explaining that the plan couldn't possibly work. Since then, neither McGoldrick nor Ammiano has said anything to convince me that his current idea is different than the pointless money pit proposed in 2004. Instead, Ammiano and McGoldrick have been saying Newsom's failure to support his 2004 plan to spend millions of tax dollars laying fiber-optic cable alongside sewer lines was a "missed opportunity."

Perhaps, in the way a bullet that only singes your hair is a "missed opportunity." Much smaller cities such as Palo Alto and Alameda started up expensive municipal broadband systems, then lost millions of dollars trying to run them. In San Francisco, a city-owned network would compete with already existing private networks such as cable, telephone lines, Wi-Fi, and yet-unknown technologies that might develop during the decade or more of installing such a system might require.

But because the idea's been adopted by left-leaning supervisors as a way to kill a key mayoral policy initiative, this wasteful city-fiber-optic network pipe dream has become an official part of local "progressivism."

As such, the city fiber-optic network will never be built. But it's a phantom menace that will kill the mayor's much more workable Google-EarthLink Wi-Fi plan.

Loranger has been laying low during the Wi-Fi debate, so far. But that's only because he's been waiting for the right moment to attack.

"People should be concerned about the cumulative effects of all of this microwave radiation being introduced to the city," Loranger said, explaining that a Wi-Fi system would require installing battalions of small antennas on utility poles, which would beam radio waves into people's homes. In some cases the waves would strike sleeping babies, he points out.

"When you add that to the number of existing licensed cellphone antennas, Sutro Tower, the hundreds of thousands of cellphones that are themselves transmitting, and the tens of thousands of Wi-Fi facilities that are in apartments and in people's homes, we think people will be concerned about the health issues," he says. "We haven't had hearings on the public health side of it yet, and we think there should be."

Some time during the next couple of weeks the city's Planning Department will issue a report saying whether or not it's necessary to conduct a study about the Google-EarthLink Wi-Fi plan's effects on the environment.

Loranger will fire back a letter demanding an environmental study of his own devising, in which specialists measure the amount of radio waves beamed into every part of San Francisco. He'll then demand public hearings about whether or not these radio waves are making people sick.

It's doubtful such hearings would produce any sort of useful conclusion. But Loranger will get the hearings, because supervisors are quite accustomed to giving Loranger what he wants.

Health concerns over the effects of radio waves generated by cellphone networks are repeatedly debunked by respected scientists, and then raised again by others, a cycle that's continued since cellphone networks began in the 1970s. Regulators over the world say radio waves don't harm people, and since the 1980s, research has mounted saying such radiation doesn't affect biology. But now and again, studies will pop up saying it's possible cellphone radiation can produce biological effects.

And that's been enough for Loranger to contact and frighten residents where cellphone towers are slated to be built, and get them to flood City Hall with complaints. So far, he's defeated 13 out of 15 cell towers that have come before the Board of Supervisors during recent years, forcing companies such as Verizon and T-Mobile to stop installing them altogether. Instead, they've been placing miniature torso-sized antennas on stores and apartment buildings. Earlier this year, Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin pressured cell companies to stop building those mini-antennas, too.

As a proven giant killer, Loranger will demolish whatever's left of Newsom's free, citywide wireless plan.

But it didn't have to be this way.

Back in 2004, when Tom Ammiano was floating his inoperable fiber-optic plan, Newsom needn't have blown him off as he did. Instead, Newsom could have patted Ammiano on the back for his great idea, and included a proposed city-owned network as one contestant in a bidding competition for S.F. broadband. And there it would have died on the merits.

And when it did, Newsom could have made a big deal of trying to salvage some of Ammiano's boondoggle with the supervisors' help — perhaps by incorporating the small amounts of fiber-optic cable now in the city's purview into whatever system got built. Then he should have made Ammiano vice mayor for technology, much like he made his former opponent Angela Alioto vice-mayor of homelessness back in 2003.

Sadly, Newsom took a different path.

He tried to sell free Wi-Fi as a go-alone no-brainer, and as an anti-poverty initiative; in 2004, you'll recall, Newsom was still claiming that he liked to hang around in the projects and play pickup basketball. Keeping with the theme, citywide Wi-Fi was touted as mostly aimed at residents of S.F. subsidized housing projects.

But Newsom needed a pro-Wi-Fi coalition broader than the PR team responsible for his phony man-o-the-poor image. There are actually hundreds of thousands of San Franciscans who believe wide broadband access is crucial to social empowerment and economic growth, and they were left out of the loop.

Now, Newsom is scurrying between personal appearances to tout his wireless plan, hoping he can salvage it somehow.

But it's as good as dead. And in politics, death of a major policy initiative is noticed by those keeping score.

"If you can't give away free beer on a warm day, or free Wi-Fi in one of the most technologically savvy cities in the country, how can you be governor?" asks Jim Ross, Newsom's 2003 campaign strategist.

And why, I'll add, should he get another term as mayor of San Francisco?

About The Author

Matt Smith


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