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Not-So-Wireless Philadelphia?

Enterprise Mobility Featured Article

December 12, 2007

Not-So-Wireless Philadelphia?

Executive Editor, IP Communications Group

December 12, 2007 – Once upon a time – the night of October 3, 2005, to be exact – the City of Philadelphia announced that EarthLink would be the primary vendor for the rollout and management of what would have been at the time America’s largest municipal WiFi broadband network project, called Wireless Philadelphia. From an original list of 12 contenders, EarthLink had beat out fellow finalist Hewlett-Packard (News - Alert). The system was designed to use Tropos Networks' MetroMesh WiFi routers on 3,000 light poles throughout the 135 square miles of coverage, as well as Motorola's (News - Alert) MOTOwi4 products such as its Canopy high-speed backhaul and WiFi mesh network equipment.

Wireless Philadelphia was set up as a nonprofit organization – which gave the public a misperception that the whole network was somehow going to be free – but EarthLink was to put up the initial financing of the network and was to share in the revenues. Wireless Philadelphia’s share of the revenues was to be used to pay for ‘digital divide’ programs, so that low-income families could have inexpensive Internet access. In particular the Digital Inclusion Program would work with community organizations to help people who are not online (such as the economically disadvantaged) get the equipment and training they need so they could access the Internet and improve their lives as a result. The Digital Inclusion Program would charge a rate of $9.95. Others would pay between $16 to $20 a month. EarthLink would also be able to serve and charge larger customers such as Drexel University for network access. Still, it was thought that the WiFi network could also make city government more efficient via WiFi access for police, social workers, building inspectors and other mobile city employees.

Moving forward in time to September 2006, an email newsletter from Wireless Philadelphia announced that when the network was ready, its retail customers would be paying $21.95 a month for high-speed Internet access. This was higher than Wireless Philadelphia’s original target price of $16-20/month.

Let’s move forward again to January 11, 2007, when EarthLink launched WiFi service in a proof-of-concept test covering 15 square miles of Philadelphia, extending east of Broad Street and north of the Vine Street Expressway. From January 11th to the 21st, anyone in the area could enjoy upload and download speeds up to 1 Mbps, free of charge.

But things were already starting to go wrong. January 3, 2007 also brought the untimely death by cancer of EarthLink’s 49-year CEO and greatest municipal broadband proponent, Garry Betty.

EarthLink used its work in Philadelphia to help market similar networks in other cities, but feasibility problems began to appear regarding the deployment of city-wide WiFi networks. By August 2007, EarthLink had abandoned a similar project in San Francisco.  Chicago and Cincinnati also deserted their efforts during the same time frame. EarthLink missed the starting deadline for a WiFi project in Houston, Texas, and paid the city a $5 million penalty.

And then, on December 11, 2007, EarthLink neglected to attend a Philadelphia City Council hearing on the present situation of Wireless Philadelphia. Instead, it sent a note indicating that it’s talking to other providers that might “have an interest in the network” – thus irritating city council members, according to an Associated Press report.

EarthLink has invested over $20 million in the Philadelphia network (instead of the projected $10 to $15 million) with 75 percent of it complete, though EarthLink can’t say when the final districts in the northern part of the city will be finished. Only a few thousand customers have joined the network, not the 50,000 to 80,000 projected. Users have also discovered that urban terrain, including foliage and buildings, interfere with the WiFi signal.

And as for helping to bridge the “digital divide” with the Digital Inclusion Program, a $1 million campaign to market free and discounted WiFi service to economically disadvantaged people resulted in just 613 sign-ups by June 2007, missing the Digital Inclusion Program’s goal of 1,000 users. (That works out to an expenditure of $1,631.32 per new user.) Shire Pharmaceuticals, the British pharmaceutical company, had recently donated more than 400 laptop computers worth around $100,000 to Wireless Philadelphia for the Digital Inclusion Program.

City Solicitor Romulo L. Diaz Jr. said at the hearing that Philadelphia was protected contractually if EarthLink actually abandoned the project. Diaz is quoted as saying that, in the meantime, the city will “continue to hold their [EarthLink’s] feet to the fire.”


Richard Grigonis is an internationally-known technology editor and writer. Prior to joining TMC (News - Alert) as Executive Editor of its IP Communications Group, he was the Editor-in-Chief of VON Magazine (News - Alert) from its founding in 2003 to August 2006. He also served as the Chief Technical Editor of CMP Media’s Computer Telephony magazine, later called Communications Convergence (News - Alert), from its first year of operation in 1994 until 2003. In addition, he has written five books on computers and telecom (including the Computer Telephony Encyclopedia and Dictionary of IP Communications). To see more of his articles, please visit his columnist page.

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