Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Wi-Fi Update: A New Chapter in the Philadelphia Story

Were my obits for Philadelphia's municipal wireless network premature? Maybe so.

A group of local investors said today that they will take over the city's struggling Wi-Fi service. Not only that, the investors plan to drop the network's modest subscription fees and provide free citywide Internet service supported by selling ads and other telecom services.

Original network owner EarthLink announced last fall that it was abandoning its municipal wireless business. EarthLink has been charging subscribers $20 a month for Wi-Fi service in Philadelphia -- half that much for “digital inclusion” customers with limited incomes.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Tuesday morning that the network's new ownership team includes Derek Pew, a lawyer and former investment banker who previously served as Wireless Philadelphia's interim CEO, and Mark Rupp, a former Verizon executive. In addition to selling ads, the new owners plan to fund the service by providing "integrated wired/wireless telecommunications services for large customers such as hospitals [and] universities," according to Tuesday's news release announcing the deal.

We'll see if that business model works where the previous one failed.

My CQ column last month (and an earlier blog post here) focused on why the city's much-heralded effort to offer low-cost Wi-Fi access to its citizens was in such trouble. A far more detailed analysis by consultant Karl Edwards of Excelsio Communications, writing a guest commentary for the MuniWireless blog, also looked at why the Philly model failed there and in the other communities that copied it.

So what about the new model?

I'm suspicious about the ad business personally. But a fairly upbeat audio analysis by Glenn Fleishman of Wi-Fi Network News focuses on the "predictable income" the new investors might reap from providing wired business service to "anchor tenants," perhaps even the city itself. "It's not the same old thing," he says. "This is private enterprise.... There's some potential this could succeed."

Talk that a group of Philly-area investors might be willing to step in and keep the $17 million network EarthLink built up and running first surfaced last week.

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