It's the end of the cycle, folks: The first shall be last and the last shall, apparently, be first to sue. The Philadelphia Wi-Fi network will be shuttered under plans by EarthLink that they announced via press release today.
The company plans to pull all its gear from the poles starting 12-June-2008. The company's press release said it offered to give the network at no cost to an unnamed non-profit, as well as to the city, but claimed that "unresolved issues" led to the effort falling apart. EarthLink offered cash and more equipment, as well, in undisclosed quantities. Wireless Philadelphia, the non-profit in charge of managing the network provider and administering digital divide programs, was apparently not the non-profit mentioned.
EarthLink filed a lawsuit to allow it to remove its Wi-Fi nodes and cap its liability at $1m. That's a pretty hostile move, given that the city would have been the more likely party to feel aggrieved and file suit against EarthLink for failing to live up to the terms of their agreement.
EarthLink's claims of offering the network to "a non-profit" or the city for free skirts the issue that EarthLink may have certain liabilities for electrical power and other fees that haven't yet been paid; Wireless Philadelphia had agreed to pick up or defer certain charges as part of the deal that brought the network provider in. But without a completed network, and the contract therefore perhaps susceptible to being declared in default in court, it's unlikely that this will play out nicely.
And I'll say bluntly: If someone offered you $17m of outdated equipment on a network that never worked to specification that wasn't completed, and that already had known high annual costs, and which a private firm gave up as a bad job that they couldn't turn a dime on--would you take that deal? No. EarthLink will ultimately have to pay much more than $1m, I predict, and I suspect some of the settlement will leave gear in selected neighborhoods behind for more modest networking purposes. It's not going to be as easy as releasing a press release, although I haven't read the contract's provisions for this set of circumstances, and I'm not a lawyer.
The failure in Philadelphia, and EarthLink's exiting the entire muni-Fi business, represents the end of a bad model in which a company agreed to assume all risk and costs associated with building a public access network. When the assumptions were that networks would be cheaper and easier to build in 2005, and that citizens in many larger cities had few affordable broadband options, it made some sense to build a network on spec.
Three years into this, however, it's clear that that capital investment is 2 to 3 times higher than what was anticipated to reach a level of service quality that people will expect; that, when presented with potential competition, DSL and cable operators will slash prices and offer cheap 1-year or "lifetime" rates with long-term contracts; and that wireless broadband delivered via Wi-Fi isn't the best of ideas for indoor service.
Minneapolis may wind up being the only large city, if the network quality and subscriber rates play out, that has a public access network that works and produces a return.
Update: Wireless Philadelphia released a statement from its chief, Greg Goldman, that WP is still hoping to work out a resolution. They "remain optimistic."