San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom got nationwide publicity last year by marrying gay couples in City Hall, but now he's launching a crusade...

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom got nationwide publicity last year by marrying gay couples in City Hall, but now he’s launching a crusade he regards as even more controversial: building a high-speed wireless Internet system offering low-cost service to residents.

Newsom called a news conference on a recent afternoon in the children’s section of San Francisco’s main public library to announce “TechConnect,” described as “a new citywide initiative for universal, affordable, wireless broadband access.”

TechConnect would compete with DSL service from SBC and cable-modem service from Comcast, which already provide wired broadband access throughout the Bay Area for $25 to $60 a month.

Newsom first raised the possibility of such a city network last October in his annual State of the City speech.

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“I made an announcement, just a little thing … and I couldn’t believe the response across the country,” Newsom said. “I mean people were outraged, they were livid, they were putting [up] Web sites demanding to get rid of this mad mayor.”

Municipal wireless systems are turning into this year’s tech bubble, with manufacturers making lots of promises and boosters glossing over numerous engineering hurdles. Delivering Internet service is much more complicated than piping in tap water or picking up garbage, and cities could easily get overwhelmed with unproven equipment.

Some big projects are nonetheless moving forward.

Philadelphia recently narrowed the field of bidders to two — teams headed by Hewlett-Packard and EarthLink — to build a citywide network. Earlier this month, Intel touted a program called Digital Communities, where Intel engineers are helping cities from Taipei, Taiwan, to Cleveland to Jerusalem in designing municipal wireless systems.

These systems use Wi-Fi, the same technology found in many notebook computers, in wireless home network gear and at hot spots in Starbucks coffee shops and public spaces such as San Francisco’s Union Square.

Some cities are interested in these networks for use by their employees, such as meter readers, building inspectors, police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians. These networks are less expensive than projects that would also serve residents.

The reason cities give for wanting to provide home service is that today’s broadband duopoly of DSL and cable keeps prices artificially high. But it’s not clear whether wireless can significantly undercut duopoly prices, at least not without taxpayer subsidies. Intel, meanwhile, is advocating a new wireless technology called WiMax that could ultimately prove cheaper and faster than Wi-Fi.

At the mayor’s news conference, Newsom said, “We have to either find a partner to do it, or we’re going to have to write a big check.”

The best thing San Francisco can do is invite as many private companies as possible to build networks, rather than threatening to spend tax money in ways that would only slow down the free-market process.

Mike Langberg is a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.