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« Fon, Boingo Form Partnership | Main | Philadelphia's Drexel U Has EarthLink Network Access »

May 24, 2007

More on Phila.'s Giving EarthLink Go-Ahead

Philadelphia was part of the impetus for the whole wireless city notion, as well as the heart of the backlash; it's also EarthLink's first real city to build out: Philadelphia was where it all started, not just for our fine country's origin myths, but also for the idea of unwiring entire cities with Wi-Fi. Smaller towns had conceived of and a few built such networks--Chaska, Minn., always first on that list--but Philadelphia put out a number of principles that have driven networks since.

Philadelphia said: subsidized and free access for low-income residents; computers and training for same; ubiquitous coverage, approaching 95 percent, with indoor bridges required where necessary; no financial outlay by the city--that last point an amendment to both their and a similarly timed (but less detailed) announcement by San Francisco.

The backlash that arose from Philadelphia has mostly subsided, because both Philadelphia and San Francisco backed away almost immediately from the idea that city coffers would fund free networks. AT&T now bids on and builds out citywide Wi-Fi networks. Some former critics of municipal involvement appear fine with the notion that cities authorize networks, but don't spend their own money. And it's clear that by floating the idea of building a Wi-Fi network for a town (or Wi-Fi plus fiber), it forces the incumbents to accelerate their spending, and provide better service, even if a network isn't built.

EarthLink helped set the tone for that when it jumped in with both feet to get the bid to unwire Philadelphia, rejecting the need for the Wireless Philadelphia nonprofit to raise any money to build the network at all. In 2005, when Phila.'s request for proposals (RFP) was issued, EarthLink seemed to be facing despair on all fronts. Declining dial-up user base. No access to wireline services without either high wholesale prices or deals struck with incumbents. A lack of a third wire (like broadband over powerline) or any hope of non-discriminatory access requirements. Wi-Fi was one of two ways for them to build new markets; the other was in the cellular world, by launching Helio with SK Telecom as a 50-50 project. Getting a big city and offering to bear the relatively modest costs to build it out made a lot of sense.

While EarthLink has signed a lot of contracts in the interim, they have frankly not built much, and they're not to blame for that either; no one is really to blame for public processes that take longer than expected. (To avoid being insulting: They haven't built much of any metropolis, nor much relative to the square miles contracted to be built.) While EarthLink has the San Francisco contract and recently was awarded the 600 sq mi deal for Houston, work hasn't started; ditto, Atlanta's massive undertaking in EarthLink's headquarter's backyard. Anaheim is underway, but not complete, and nowhere near the scale and complexity of Philadelphia. New Orleans is only partly built-out (and partly assumed from previous networking gear in place), while EarthLink took over Corpus Christi, Texas's network from the city, and only recently at that. EarthLink's announcement a few weeks ago that they'd review what they've done and pull back on any but big contracts is in line with these facts: they don't have enough footprint to predict what works. (We can argue the same points, by the way, for Cisco and IBM, with nothing really built in their various projects; Kite, with a pile of smaller cities and a growing regional footprint in Arizona, but no urban giants; and MetroFi, which is facing constant sniping as they build Portland, Ore.)

We can bitch and moan about how San Francisco is a morass, with a public process that's taken well over a year from a winning bid to the potential of a contract being scotched. But that's civics, folks. Citizens, interested parties (commercial and nonprofit and NGO), and elected and appointed officials, along with bureaucrats, all get together to make it work or not. In some cities, the wheels are greased for better or worse; in others, the process can destroy the ability to get anything done. In this case, however, I'd have to argue that despite the lengthy delays, San Francisco is only a slight outlier, not several sigmas away from the standard deviation. It's one thing to say, hey, part of the Oakland interchange for the entire highway system went up in flames, and we need to get it fixed fast to avoid wasting billions in commerce (and burning more gas in delays); and another to look at the next 10 to 20 years of telecommunications within a city and decide too quickly who will own some fundamental pieces of that. Decisions made today could constrain the city's appeal to businesses and residents alike in the future.

So Philadelphia will be the auto de fé for both EarthLink's ability to manage and deploy a project of this scale, and to prove the viability of their technology and market approach. It's also going to be the crucible for the ideas that the city raised: can you bring computers and Internet access to a lesser-educated, lesser-earning population and see positive results such as increased employment, better school test scores, lower rates of crime, better satisfaction with government, and other civic and academic results? Will people be happier, even, with the world that's farther away closer to their reach, and the world outside their door pushed a bit further away?