By Eric Auchard
Marking its biggest step into the wireless communications market to date, Google Inc. said on Friday it has proposed to provide free wireless Internet services across the city of San Francisco.
The Web search company said it has responded to a request for information by the City of San Francisco to test local Internet services via Wi-Fi, the short-range wireless technology built into most new laptop computers.
"Google has submitted a proposal to offer free, wireless Internet access (Wi-Fi) to the entire city of San Francisco," Google said in a statement.
The Wi-Fi access could be funded through online advertising, a Google spokesman said, "Ads would easily cover all the expenses."
The service aims to test a range of new services and applications around the hilly city, which is home to more than 700,000 residents.
Offering free wireless communications could thrust Google into competition with entrenched local suppliers of broadband Internet access, including telephone network SBC Communications Inc. and local cable operator Comcast Corp. No word yet whether SBC will allow the proposal or not.
An effort by the city of Philadelphia to offer municipal Wi-Fi Internet access services has met with stiff opposition from phone company Verizon Communications. Chicago and New York are among other cities considering similar plans. Verizon and SBC are fighting furiously against these proposals, as SBC is doing in Kansas also.
"This proposal is limited to San Francisco and we don't have any plans to expand this community service beyond the (San Francisco) Bay Area," the Google statement said.
Confirmation of the Google proposal came after a public "request for information and comment" by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom for ideas on creating a universal, affordable, city wireless network.
The wireless proposal aims to reach handheld organizers, computers or mobile phone devices, from the financial district to low-income neighborhoods, the city said in a statement.
In July, Google confirmed that it had began a limited test of a free wireless Web service, called "Google WiFi" with tests at a pizza parlor and gymnasium near its Mountain View, California headquarters.
The company began sponsoring a Wi-Fi "hotspot" in a downtown San Francisco shopping district in April, working with a start-up outfit called Feeva.
If it is chosen for the project, Google is working with a variety of partners to help it set up and manage the wireless service, said Google spokesman Nathan Tyler.
Google would work with partners to build and operate the wireless service, including Wireless Facilities Inc., a San Diego company that helps run networks, the Wall Street Journal reported late on Friday.
Other companies that responded to San Francisco's request for information include Internet service provider EarthLink Inc. of Atlanta, the Journal said.
"If accepted, we believe Google can bring to bear its expertise managing complex computer networks combined with years of online consumer product development, to benefit the people of San Francisco," Google said of its proposal.
(Additional reporting by Sinead Carew in New York)
Copyright 2005 Reuters Limited.
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