Next to winning the Civil War and abolishing slavery, building the first transcontinental railroad, from Omaha Nebraska to Sacramento, California, was the greatest achievement of the American people in the nineteenth century. — Nothing Like It In The World
It was hailed as Internet for the masses when Philadelphia officials announced plans in 2005 to erect the largest municipal Wi-Fi grid in the country, stretching wireless access over 135 square miles with the hope of bringing free or low-cost service to all residents, especially the poor, says Ian Urbina for The New York Times.
But the excited momentum has sputtered to a standstill, tripped up by unrealistic ambitions and technological glitches. The conclusion that such ventures would not be profitable led to sudden withdrawals by service providers like EarthLink, the Internet company that had effectively cornered the market on the efforts by the larger cities.
Greg Goldman is chief executive of Wireless Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization set up to help administer the program. He said that about $4 million was needed to cover the rest of the city.
In Tempe, Ariz., and Portland, Ore., for example, hundreds of subscribers have found themselves suddenly without service as providers have cut their losses and either abandoned their networks or stopped expanding capacity.
“All these cities had this hype hangover late last year when EarthLink announced its intentions to pull out,” said Craig Settles, an independent wireless consultant. “Now that they’re all sobered up, they’re trying to figure out if it’s still possible to capture the dream of providing affordable and high-speed access to all residents.”
EarthLink announced on Feb. 7 that “the operations of the municipal Wi-Fi assets were no longer consistent with the company’s strategic direction.” Philadelphia officials say they are not sure when or if the promised network will now be completed.
Earthlink’s system was 75 percent built out at the time Earthlink announced it wanted out, in February, 2008. EarthLink’s Philadelphia’s WiFi network was soon scaled back, explains Network World. EarthLink’s Wi-Fi coverage required more node density, going from 25 access points per sq mile to 42 per sq mile, increasing their cost. Client-side signal boosters were also required for improved reception. The network so far has left the northeast and northwest areas of the city unbuilt and without service.
EarthLink also ran into issues at the backhaul layer, where its rooftop towers are linked together. The plan was to use as many Motorola Canopy line-of-sight microwave radios as possible, but in order to get around corners and past trees, EarthLink has had to add Alvarion BreezeAccess VL non-line-of-sight radios. Now EarthLink’s costs are running double what the company anticipated at this point in the project. Total costs are now estimated at $15-$20 million.
A word of clarification, Portland’s MetroFi system has stopped building out their Wi-Fi cloud (with some 25% completed), but the service is still available in those areas — I’m posting this story using MetroFi’s free system.
Solutions to this dilemma could be as varied as the cities. Anchor tenants, city-takeovers, grants and subsidies, partnerships with non-profits like NYC Wireless, Portland’s PersonalTelco, Free Geek and One-Economy, grass-roots solutions with devices like Meraki and Open-Mesh, commercial mobile WiMAX, and hybrid WiFi/WiMAX solutions are being explored.
A lot depends on consumer habits, too. MetroFi says iPhones have become a significant player on their system. Mobile Internet Devices will soon deliver powerful new applications along with location-based services and advertising. In mid-town, municipal Wi-Fi — especially free or low cost internet access — could become an idea whose time has come.
The suburbs may be another story. Perhaps the next frontier will be the “white spaces” in the unused 700MHz band — Google’s next big push.
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