Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Untangling Philadelphia's Wireless Mess

Philadelphia got plenty of attention when former Mayor John F. Street launched his city's ambitious efforts to provide low-cost wireless Internet access to its citizens. Governing even recognized Philadelphia's former chief information officer, Dianah L. Neff, for her leadership in the area as one of our Public Officials of the Year in 2006.

By the following year, however, the city's ambitious Wi-Fi plans were looking pretty iffy -- as were similar efforts in communities across the country. Philadelphia's corporate partner, Earthlink, decided to abandon the municipal wireless business last fall. And on Tuesday the Atlanta-based company announced that it would begin shutting down Philadelphia's network on June 12.

Earthlink said it had been in unsuccessful talks with Philadelphia officials and an unnamed non-profit for months to arrange a free handoff of its $17 million network, which already blankets more than 75 percent of the city. The non-profit in question is presumably Earthlink's current partner, Wireless Philadelphia, whose chief executive, Greg Goldman, said that his organization was working with the city "to identify alternatives for preserving this network and applying it to numerous civic, commercial and social purposes."

"The transfer of the EarthLink network is by definition a complex, time-intensive, multi-party transaction," Goldman said. "...We remain optimistic for an orderly resolution of this matter."

Meanwhile, Earthlink is already heading to federal court to try to cap its liability and guarantee its right to start taking down its equipment.

In retrospect, Glenn Fleishman of Wi-Fi Net News says the big wireless networks envisioned by leaders in Philadelphia and many other cities faced daunting challenges from the start, including higher-than-anticipated operating costs, decreasing rates for competing commercial broadband services, and technical difficulties delivering Wi-Fi through walls.

"The failure in Philadelphia, and EarthLink's exiting the entire muni-Fi business, represents the end of a bad model in which a company agreed to assume all risk and costs associated with building a public access network," Fleishman wrote shortly after Wednesday's announcement. "When the assumptions were that networks would be cheaper and easier to build in 2005, and that citizens in many larger cities had few affordable broadband options, it made some sense to build a network on spec."

Municipal wireless networks still offer opportunities to local governments, especially for helping manage and monitor services. Governing's Chris Swope wrote last year about how officials in Corpus Christi, Texas, are making that model work. Another former Earthlink partner, Houston, has similar plans -- and also aims to provide bubbles of public Internet access via its wireless network in key areas.

Other wireless technologies may turn out to be key components in filling gaps in the public broadband coverage currently provided primarily by cable and phone companies. Last week, Sprint Nextel rounded up an unusual group of partners (including Comcast, Intel, Time Warner Cable and Google) to join it in investing $3.2 billion in a venture called Clearwire, which aims to quickly build a national high-speed wireless Internet network using an emerging standard called WiMax. An earlier Sprint-Clearwire deal to build a national WiMax service fell apart last November.

So how does WiMax work? Unlike short-range Wi-Fi networks, which function well in homes, offices and coffee shops, WiMax works over distances measured in miles. That's a plus. But making WiMax widely available would depend on building a wide-ranging network of cell phone-like towers. It also would require computer makers and customers to take to the new technology, which is relatively untested. "WiMax certainly holds promise, but as far as consumer wireless applications are concerned, we will not fully see what it can do until at least 2009," Alan Shark of the Public Technology Institute told me in an interview last September.

Of course, Clearwire's WiMax plan is a private venture. Does government have any role to play in directly providing broadband access to citizens, as Mayor Street set out to do in Philadelphia?

In the end, no one technology or provider is likely to dominate how Americans access the Internet -- just as the United States still depends on a range of energy providers and energy sources to keep the lights on. As it has been with electricity, government may indeed be a better service provider than the private sector in certain communities -- perhaps even the only service provider. But even when government is not a provider, it still can assemble leaders from all levels of the public sector and all sides of the telecom industry to try to chart a common course. Otherwise, today's hodgepodge of U.S. Internet services will never become the seamless network of connectivity that many citizens/customers are looking for.

See my January Governing column -- "Beyond Wi-Fi" -- and my Managing Technology newsletter from September for more thoughts and observations on this subject.

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