Google wants to test public free wireless access in San Francisco, for the good of humanity.

The search giant is one of 26 companies interested in setting up a citywide wireless Internet service. Google wants to offer free WiFi service to all residents and visitors. Advertisements targeted to users' locations would help support the project, in which other Internet service providers could also buy access wholesale and sell special services to end users, Google said.

Wireless for the people

"We believe that ubiquitous, affordable Internet access is a crucial aspect of humanity's social and economic development, and that working to supply free WiFi is a major step in that direction," Google said. "However, we also believe that there will never be either one form of online connectivity or one company that exclusively provides it."

Some recent news reports have raised the spectre of Google muscling in on existing broadband providers through widespread free wireless Internet access, using optical fibre capacity to create a national backbone network. In the document posted Monday, Google referred to the fibre network, but in a more limited context.

"It takes thousands of computers and miles of fibre optic cable to globally deliver responses to your search queries within fractions of a second," Google wrote in the proposal. "We are confident that we can replicate the success of this infrastructure in the world of WiFi for the city of San Francisco."

WiFi in the Haight, the new idealism

San Francisco could be a test bed for location-based applications and services delivered over WiFi, the company wrote. In fact, Google already is working with partners to provide free WiFi in some parts of the city, and it offers access in a few locations near its Mountain View, California, headquarters.

Google has proposed to build an IEEE 802.11b/g Wi-Fi mesh network that delivers more than 1Mbps (bits per second) of capacity throughout the city. Anyone in the city could get access free at speeds as high as 300Kbps, and Google or third parties could sell access at higher speeds, possibly as high as 3Mbps. The 300Kbps free service could be reached at street level, in the front room of a home or business, and on the first few floors of a building. Consumers might be encouraged to use customer premises equipment for better indoor reception, Google said.

Standing at a lamp post

The city would give Google access to about 1,900 lamp posts for placing access points, which would also be located on some buildings.

Google would also provide a separate VLAN (virtual LAN) for municipal agencies' own traffic to help ensure delivery and mitigate congestion. The city could use it free at 300Kbps.

Wireless Facilities, an engineering, network services and technical outsourcing company in San Diego, would design and deploy the network, according to Google's proposal. The network would eventually support 802.11n, the future wireless LAN technology designed for more than 100Kbps throughput, once that is available, Google said.

If the political process goes smoothly, a service could go live within five or six months.

EarthLink, MetroFi, Motorola and SFLan are also pitching for the plan.