In a move that doesn't surprise me, EarthLink and Google have combined their proposal to build a network in San Francisco: Both companies have openly spoken for months about how they were working together to understand how viable models for a variety of metro-scale networks could operate profitably for the ISP. Google has said rather consistently as well that they aren't interested in running Wi-Fi networks, but rather need some testbeds to try out ideas--hence their SF and Mountain View interests.
Don Berryman of EarthLink stated in a brief release (also found on the company's Earthling blog), "We will be able to offer services to different customers on the network that fit with their own individual needs and wants." Based on my research and interviews, I suspect this means that Google can offer ad-sponsored free access and perform the tests on efficacy that they want. They can also introduce tests of new services or variations on services, such as their instant messaging and virtual private network software. EarthLink can charge for higher-speed access and provide business-grade service using their Motorola Canopy backbone. (The free/fee tiered basis is now being reported at GigaOm.)
This is another nice win for Tropos and Canopy, by the way, as EarthLink has committed to using gear from those two firms for at least the first five cities that they build out. Other bidders now face a higher bar given the integration of the two firms' proposals.
My friend and colleague Om Malik has been beating a drum for months that Google might build Wi-Fi networks from coast to coast. I have disputed this not based on evidence--Om uncovered fiber optic line leases and other deals--but on margins. Google has a very high-margin advertising business, while ISP service involves ugly amounts of physical infrastructure investment and relatively low margins that require huge volumes to achieve good returns.
Now the EarthLink-Google bid linkage in San Francisco is fascinating as Google originally was to build their network using wireless infrastructure builder WFI. The status of that wasn't mentioned in the brief statement I received from EarthLink, of course.
Update: The San Jose Mercury reports bids have also been received from MetroFi, Communication Bridge Global, NextWLAN, Razortooth Communications and SF Metro Connect (SeaKay, Cisco Systems and IBM). Cisco has new mesh equipment and IBM has a service operation that handles installations of networks.
Is it just me, or does it seem like this metro wifi stuff is just taking forever to get here? I am glad to see Earthlink getting so much into the game, though. If anyone is going to succeed based on volume, they're the right company to give it a shot.
[Editor's note: Gosh, I think prudence is a good thing, no? Contracts have taken a while to nail down and test networks are yet to be built.--gf]
Glad to see that more cities are moving forward with plans to encourage partnerships that use private money - a point Glenn's made on several occasions. It looks like Lompoc, CA is still experiencing growing pains, though - they haven't quite figured out how to optimize node placement and they just agreed to give their consultant another $150k (on top of the $800k they've already paid him) to bid out a $300k per year tech support contract. And the network isn't live yet. Ouch.
Glenn, I agree that prudence is a good thing. However, I think that my impatience has come from the sheer length of time that this topic has been in the news. According to the latest update ( http://www.phila.gov/wireless/pdfs/WP_Update_Dec_2005.pdf ), Philadelphia's project has basically just gotten past the stage of selecting an ISP. Their wireless committee ( http://www.phila.gov/wireless/ ) was established in July of 2004. To me, that's not exactly quick. But then again, I guess that's what you get when it comes to any government operation. :)
[Editor's Note: I can't agree -- no network of this scale and density has ever been built. They spent several months negotiating political shoals and wound up having to fight to get an exemption to a law before it was passed in Pennsylvania. The proposal they released received a number of good bids, and EarthLink was selected months ago. It seems to have taken months to negotiate the terms of the contract, which is probably a good thing for taxpayers and EarthLink shareholders. They were the pioneers. In other, smaller cities, it's been a matter of months from proposal to contract to deployment; see Tempe, for instance.--gf]