Free Wi-Fi ‘Brought to You By’: Google Wins SF Contract

Google and Earthlink have won a joint bid to blanket the city of San Francisco with Wi-Fi Internet access, and in the case of the search company, to deliver advertising from local businesses.

The selection was announced today by the city’s Department of Telecommunications and Information Services.

Under the companies’ plan, Google’s 300 Kbps “basic access” service will be free and ad-supported, while Earthlink will offer a paid 1 Mbps connection for around $20 a month.

Ads from Google will appear on the network’s capture portal, typically the first page users see when they log onto a third-party Wi-Fi network. In its proposal, the Mountain View company said it would market those placements to small Bay area businesses.

“Google’s advertising platform for the Basic Access capture portal, when combined with a citywide Wi-Fi network, can enable effective and affordable advertising solutions for small businesses and sole proprietors for whom traditional advertising may be too expensive,” the company wrote in its pitch to the city.

The proposal continued, “Google would expect to reach out to these small businesses in the city and communicate to them the benefits of advertising products or services to the local community online. Google’s advertising technology will target advertisements to specific geographical locations and to user interests, thereby increasing relevance and enhancing the user experience.”

On winning the assignment, Google declined to elaborate on the number, the format, or the degree of targeting it has planned for ads that will appear on the capture portal, offering only this statement: “We are thrilled that the City of San Francisco has accepted our joint bid with Earthlink to provide WiFi access citywide. We look forward to continuing the planning process with the City and Earthlink and are eager to provide free WiFi to the residents of San Francisco.”

Google has already made an R&D investment in hyper-local ad targeting, as evidenced by a recent patent application for a method of serving ads based on the position of an end user’s wireless access point, among other factors.

Privacy advocates have expressed some concern at the Google requirement that Web users log in using an email address, and at Earthlink’s collection and use of personal information for marketing and other purposes.

The capture page for Earthlink’s premium network will also offer some advertising according to the proposal, but the ISP declined to elaborate on what form it will take.

The municipality received six proposals for a public Wi-Fi network in response to its “TechConnect initiative” RFP. It will now enter into contract negotiations with Google and Earthlink, the failure of which could result in a reconsideration of other proposals. City officials have expressed a desire to complete the project by the end of the year.

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