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Not Spot

By Carmen Nobel, Caron Carlson  |  Posted 2008-06-02 Print this article Print

Telephone and cable companies have overturned some municipal wi-fi projects, but advocates—including congress—are fighting back.

Three years ago, at a City Hall press conference, Philadelphia Mayor John Street announced a business plan to provide wireless Internet access across the city. Flanked by members of his technology task force, Street promised that a ubiquitous wire-less network would enhance the city’s economy and bring Internet access to low-income families.

“Just as roads and transportation were keys to our past, a digital infrastructure and wireless technology are keys to our future,” Street said. The city formed a nonprofit entity called Wireless Philadelphia to oversee the project.

Philadelphia wasn’t the first American city with plans to blanket itself with wireless Internet access, but it was the biggest. For a time, Philly was the poster child for municipal wireless services, influencing citywide wireless efforts across the nation. Two-and-a-half turbulent years later, its Wi-Fi plans had gone awry—and so had the plans of cities that had followed in its footsteps.

It seemed as if the idea of municipal wireless was dead. But it wasn’t the idea that was dead: It was the business model. Muni wireless is still alive and well—just not in the form of a traditional Internet service.

Wireless Philadelphia’s initial request for proposal (RFP) called for a turnkey solution in which the city would outsource everything necessary to run a gigantic wireless network: infrastructure procurement, architecture and design services, installation services, network management, customer service, billing and so on.

Meanwhile, Internet service provider (ISP) Earthlink wanted to expand its business beyond dial-up services in order to compete more effectively with larger telecom companies like Verizon and AT&T. Fueled by the vision of then-CEO Gary Betty, Earthlink was striving to be a leader in the then-nascent municipal wireless services market, using Wi-Fi technology.

“Earthlink got behind it in a big way—they were going after cable and DSL,” says Narasimha Chari, co-founder and chief architect of Tropos Networks, the wireless LAN equipment provider that teamed up with Earthlink to respond to municipal RFPs. Tropos was among the first networking hardware companies to specialize in wireless mesh technology equipment. (A wireless mesh network dynamically routes packets from access point to access point. A few nodes have to be connected directly to the wired network, but the rest share a connection with one another over the air, mitigating the need for cabling. This is ideal for citywide Wi-Fi deployments.)

Earthlink developed a business plan that was hard for a city to refuse: The company would foot the bill for the entire network—from the planning stages to the operations—if the city would let the ISP keep all the subscriber revenues. In addition, Earthlink would offer services to low-income neighborhoods at a cut rate ($9.95 per month instead of $17.95) in order to meet Philly’s “digital divide” desires. It sounded like a great deal to Wireless Philadelphia, which had been looking to outsource everything anyway.

“We said, ‘Great!’” says Ryan Nichols, communications director at Wireless Philadelphia. “It really turned the Philly RFP on its head, and it changed the conversation nationally.”

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