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« EarthLink Avoids Philadelphia Hearing | Main | The Neverending Connection: What If Your BlackBerry Works In Flight? »

December 12, 2007

Other Foot, Meet Shoe: New America Foundation's Report on Philadelphia Wi-Fi

Public policy group releases report critical of Philadelphia Wi-Fi network, but not for reasons you think: Their conclusion is that the city-created non-profit Wireless Philadelphia should have built and owned the network. Long-time readers of this site will recall that I said many times when thinktanks and reports directly and indirectly funded by telecom incumbents made specious, unsupportable statements, that I would equally hold those in favor of municipally funded or authorized networks to the same standard? Okay, then.

My main take: The report looks to Philadelphia as a case study of what went wrong in municipal wireless, starting as the premise that public ownership with private operators working as contractors is what was called for by Phila. stakeholders and common sense, and that the non-profit that should have run the network has accomplished little. This view ignores the fiscal realities Phila. and most other cities face, the reasonable (as opposed to unreasonable) criticism raised at the time and that proved justified about putting taxpayer dollars into networks that weren't well understood how to build, and that the non-profit has, despite the long delays and now jeopardized future of the network, achieved some milestones through hard effort.

I'll also note that as with the 2005/2006 era anti-muni-wireless reports, the authors of this screed relied on secondary, tertiary, and even quaternary sources for their conclusions. Sources are often quoted or cited from newspaper accounts, or accounts of accounts in which a reporter or blogger (like yours truly) has summarized an opinion or quote read elsewhere. Trusting secondary or more distant sources mean leveraging your point on other people's conclusions or reporting skills, which is intellectually weak. (As a blogger, that's part of my trade, which I leaven with actual interviews, informal conversations, and constant email.) Speaking to everyone would have been overkill, but with some key players (or noting that they declined to be interviewed) would have provided the perspective that only human conversation introduces into ideology.

Now onto the details.

The thesis: Wireless Philadelphia essentially abrogated its role in supervising the network by handing over control to EarthLink. This doesn't conform to my reading of the documents or what's happened since. WP had no method by which to raise the money necessary to own and operate the network, nor to pay the fees required by other bidders.

WP is generally deprecated for failing to achieve goals that this report says were set for it. I haven't followed the digital divide side of things carefully, but I would argue that given three realities, WP had few choices: no money or near-term sources; an offer of a free network; a plan to move money from the no-cost network to WP. How could they turn this down, especially in 2005? The fact that little money flowed through the system doesn't appear to me to be the fault of WP or Philadelphia's leadership.

Page 3: "over-reliance on the unverified claims of companies attempting to run municipal networks, can lead to the failure of these initiatives": This is the worst form of couch quarterbacking I have ever seen. There were a lot of problems in how the business and technical models were constructed to run metro-scale networks, but this takes the cake. Of course the claims were unverified: No one had built networks of these scales before; WP would have been in the same position as EarthLink had it attempted to finance a network. Worse, even, because it would have run out of money long before the network had reached this point due to political expediency.

Page 4: "Other cities appear to have learned from Philadelphia's mistakes. Boston, for example, has embraced nonprofit ownership and a wholesale access model similar in key respects to what Philadelphia had originally envisioned." Yeah, and how has that worked for ya? Boston has so far shown no success in attracting any funding to what I agree was an interesting alternative to what was being proposed and accepted elsewhere. See more below.

Page 7: "Instead of a nonprofit owner leasing access to many companies, a single private corporation would own and operate the network, sharing a portion of its revenues with the nonprofit.": I would have urged the authors to have considered the notion that the fact that the former was infeasible may have led to choice of the latter.

Also, "Up to that point [EarthLink's bid]--and as the Philadelphia proposal originally outlined--it was assumed that a bond offering, private donations, or funding from the municipality would be required to pay for new construction." That's a bit of wishful retrospective thinking. A bond offering wasn't in the cards, even if it had been floated, due to the strong opposition of putting city credit in the mix; likewise, the municipality never had any interest in funding the venture, even if it became a customer of it. Donations, grants, and loans were deemed at one point to be the sole method of funding. (See the crossed-out part in my post from 03-Oct-05 in which I note EarthLink winning the Phila. bid.) Later, on page 14, the report states exactly what I note, which seems contradictory.

There follows a lengthy, detailed, seemingly accurate-in-the-facts (not the editorializing) history of the process of formulating the network's structure and bidding it out. It is troubling to learn how much (page 23) WP deferred payments on various expenses to have initial funding given EarthLink's potential withdrawal. I did not know (or perhaps just don't recall at this remove) that WP agreed to pay part of the electrical expense for EarthLink's network.

Page 24: The table of Municipal Wireless Models includes five entries that each have their own peculiarities. Minneapolis has been widely criticized by many authors cited within this report for not talking to stakeholders and bidding out a network with a much smaller process. The network builder has, however, made great progress, and network quality reports are quite good. It's the only true big-city success story that's almost unconditionally so for the current scope of build out. (Toronto would be another, but for a much smaller area with no firm expansion plans, despite statements by Toronto Hydro that they plan to expand.)

Boston, well, I've already explained that. Seattle is listed here even though as the explanatory text notes it's a fiber plan, not a wireless one. Wi-Fi was a buried option in the RFP, and after more than a year, there's been no public statements about progress with the nearly 20 respondents. It's gone nowhere. (I live in Seattle.)

Washington, D.C., may have an RFP, but I haven't heard about bidders. San Francisco is listed as "proposed," but it's an odd thing to show.

Was this table supposed to be "One Working Project and Four Stalled Ones?"

Page 25: There's a viable critique here about the cost of entry of any firm that wanted to purchase wholesale access from EarthLink. The bar to me was set too high, too.

Starting on page 27, the report starts to delve into WP's role and operations, which, as I've said before, I'm no expert on. WP released a statement prior to the report's release noting that, "None of the key players from Wireless Philadelphia - members of the Wireless Philadelphia Executive Committee, who were involved during the organization’s formation period on which the publication focuses; consultants; current staff and board; business partners; community partners; nor retail or digital inclusion customers--were contacted or interviewed by the author as the publication was being prepared."

This was a complaint I made about the early anti-muni reports: all the information was gathered from online sources or published reports, and not confirmed against interviews or factchecked with anyone involved previously or currently in any of the projects. Note my top-level comment about relying on non-primary sources, too.

Page 29: About EarthLink's late CEO Garry Betty: "In the summer of 2007, the CEO of the company died unexpectedly." That would be January 2007, not summer. Makes a great deal of difference in the context of EarthLink's decisions, especially noting that the new CEO, hired a few months after Betty's death, "immediately" changed the company's plans rather than months after that. Layoffs followed even later.

The report ends with conclusions I hardly find justified--conclusions that were made by drilling holes into pre-chosen points in the narrative and then inserting pegs in those holes to hang the conclusions. There's a lot of logical leaps made here, with the same lack of rigor I've criticized in the no-public-ownership crowd. I have often suggested that these kinds of reports could be better received if they weren't so ideologically rigid: the inclusion of facts that do not support one's precise position represent a robust point of view; the exclusion, a timid one.

The appendixes show more of this. In a discussion of Boston's unique model, which I've noted is troubled, the report notes on page 80 that, "As of early June 2007, a number of companies were competing to play a role in the pilot Wi-Fi project in the square-mile Grove Hall neighborhood. Boston is on track for citywide Wi-Fi by the end of 2008, Pamela Reeve the chief executive of OpenAirBoston, the nonprofit created by the city to manage the wireless project, said at the time."

They footnote this to an article in the Boston Globe, which, in its second paragraph, states, "But the ambitious plan to create an "open access" wireless Internet environment citywide has hit some speed bumps, including the absence of major donors, delays in launching the pilot project, and blogger protests about Web filtering at WiFi hot spots." And that Reeve, after saying the project is on track for 2008, also agreed, "the target date is 'aggressive'" as well as admitting "Boston has yet to line up the 'key bucks' funders, such as companies, universities, or hospitals, it is hoping for."

A more honest assessment of Boston would have included those negatives.

Page 36–37 cover Corpus Christi, a city that has its Wi-Fi network now operated by EarthLink, and which carries no mention of EarthLink's statements about the future of networks in cities it's already operating in, which I find a strange admission, as if this appendix was written months earlier and not revisited.

Pages 40–41 discuss the Wireless Silicon Valley project, but only notes at the end that there is a coordination issue with Google's network in Mountain View, rather than the fact that the project has made no progress in some time, and Azulstar was unable to raise funds. (It was pulled as the lead on the project recently, but I can't critique the report for not including that particular fact.)

I was not asked to review this prior to publication, and had I, I would have just as forcibly presented these objections and more.


Not sure why you haven't moved the issue from community wifi to wireless infrastructure, yet. If you have, it isn't reflected in your article. Initiatives such as the Meraki approach are not only out there, but are demonstrating in wide-ranging programs the success that comes with realizing that the issue is not corporate vs. public wifi services, but rather a simple wireless infrastructure issue.

A business plan that starts from the premise that each house requires a $50 capital investment, and reasonable wholesale Internet access that's shared by the community invariably destroys the wifi community services myth, and exposes the weakness of corporate, market-driven access. I remind myself again and again, that the Earthlink's of the world have deliberately removed the "last mile solution" from their vocabularies. It's time to bring the phrase back.

I'm in a community that possesses city leaders that, when presented a Meraki-based business plan, are willing to state they do not want their kids to get a 21st century education by providing a "last mile solution" if it means confronting Qwest.

It's unfortunate, though not unexpected, to see the report reduced to "pro-public ownership," when the thesis is more pro-public engagement. The city engaged in an extensive and costly process to determine the right model for Philadelphia and recommended nonprofit ownership. I conclude that model would have had a better chance of succeeding because it had that credibility and the resulting public support, in addition to the arguments laid out in the Executive Committee's report.

Faith in city government does not come easy in Philadelphia, but they earned it through their initial process. Then they squandered it with the Earthlink switcheroo and long periods of silence punctuated by occasional, unbelievable claims that everything was on track. If they had been more honest about why they disregarded the Executive Committee's recommendations or why the project was so delayed (instead of constantly moving the goalposts) I think they would be in less of a hole now.

The saddest part about it is that Wireless Philadelphia and the incoming Nutter administration need to do more to close the digital divide in Philadelphia, not less. Instead, Wireless Philadelphia has to spend its time defending EarthLink and convincing people to sign up for a service that only works 75 percent of the time.

Lastly, to say that the report relies solely on secondary sources is inaccurate. I attended every public hearing on the deal and relied heavily on primary documents, especially the contracts and the executive committee report. I spoke repeatedly at those hearings with Derek Pew, Varinia Robinson, Don Berryman, and Cole Reinwand, and I interviewed Greg Goldman. But I wasn't trying to tell their story. I was trying to convey how the process was presented to the public and how members of the public could have had a bigger impact (or could in the future in other cities engaged in similar efforts). I believe that a more democratic process would have led to a better result than what Philly now faces.

Nonetheless, thank you for the close read, the link to the report itself, and for posting my comment. I look forward to more of your excellent coverage in the future.

I think it's unclear from the document how much first-person activity was involved. The criticism on primary sources is partly that although you did, surely, refer to dozens or more primary documents, that's not the same as talking to people who were involved in the process rather than quoting them sometimes through chains of two or three people, including reporters reporting on reports. I have no quibble with your excellent command of history; I certainly don't have as detailed a knowledge as you have, and the report will serve as the authoritative account of the timeline and events.

Really, after some correspondence with Sascha Meinrath, too, my criticism could be boiled down to: shoulda, coulda. I don't disagree with the fact that the EarthLink didn't match what was recommended to have been built. But as I repeatedly noted, there wasn't money or political will to build that. And there still isn't.

The report isn't rosy, by any means, but all the examples you cite as potential alternatives or even parallels to Philadelphia have mostly fallen apart, have no funding, or are in the process of unraveling. More of the inclusion of that, and including facts that don't support your contentions but that could be integrated into a more balanced understanding, would have assuaged much of my critique.

Frankly, none of what's written about in the entire report except for Minneapolis, which had one of the most top-down, least-inclusive processes, seems to have chance at this moment of working. Which isn't to say other models can't work, but none of them are, except where public safety dollars seem to be pushing projects into existence.