The head of the non-profit that manages Philadelphia's relationship with EarthLink says the goal is empowering the Internet-less: Greg Goldman writes in an op-ed piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer that metro-scale Wi-Fi networks are "s about connecting families that have been cut off from technological opportunity, and creating exciting new opportunities for everyone." I'm not sure what the translates into in practical terms: In what ways are their lives better? It's a short op-ed, so he's been required to be brief.
He writes, "We recognize that pressure to restructure municipal wi-fi business models may be mounting, but we urge that the long-term potential of these initiatives not be sacrificed to short-term objectives." Sure. And somebody needs to foot the bill. Since networks now won't be built by using a money cannon to shoot dollar bills at utility poles, cities may need to step up to the plate if there's a translatable benefit to society.
Would it be cheaper to solicit alternative telcos to install DSLAMs (DSL aggregators) in less-served central phone offices, providing those telcos with guaranteed rates of return for investing in areas with traditionally low levels of subscriptions? I don't know, and I imagine that the point isn't the medium. In this case, Wi-Fi is less encumbered (despite present difficulties), and that should have led to faster rollouts than equivalent wireline means. It didn't, so maybe some rethink is in order.
Despite years of bad regulation and court rulings that gutted most competitive DSL providers, alternative providers do exist and they can install their own gear in central offices. It's just bloody hard for them to make money. So the dollars involved in subsidizing real wired broadband is worth thinking about now.
Also, there's the Meraki model. What if neighborhoods bought bulk bandwidth in the form of a few expensive broadband lines (assuming they're expensive--they may not be) and shared it throughout the neighborhood? Wouldn't that be cheaper, more immediate, and more effective? That's what's being discovered so far.
And a nit to pick with Mr. Goldman, something I addressed with Wireless Philadelphia via an email exchange about this topic. "Subscriptions to the network have more than tripled in the last quarter," he writes. Tripled from what? EarthLink is currently dedicated to denigrating their muni networks, and hasn't released usage numbers in a while. A little birdie told me that subscribe numbers in Philadelphia in covered areas are quite good. Goldman confirms that--but won't mention the numbers, apparently. This may be due to agreements with EarthLink over business metrics.
Still--tripled from what?