Greg Goldman still sees a future for Wireless Philadelphia, the nonprofit firm set up three years ago to help city residents gain access to Internet service.
Just don’t ask him what it might be, says the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The Wireless Philadelphia chief executive called reporters to a North Philadelphia street corner yesterday to declare the nonprofit “alive and kicking” even though EarthLink asked a federal judge on Tuesday to let it dismantle the network it built to provide the Internet service for the program.
Goldman, after reading a statement and urging a group of about 20 young people to pose for pictures holding up laptop computers, tried to slip away without answering questions. Reporters blocked his escape.
“We’re still working to identify a partner or partners that will be able to step in behind EarthLink,” Goldman said. Mayor Nutter this week said he has no plans to use city money to save the wireless network. The city says it would cost taxpayers at least $3.6 million a year to operate the network.
Goldman repeatedly said he could not talk about the specifics of failed negotiations to have OneCommunity, a Cleveland-based nonprofit firm, assume control of the wireless network from EarthLink. If EarthLink is allowed to dismantle the network, Wireless Philadelphia could still pursue “digital inclusion” efforts to help city residents with limited incomes gain Internet service.
EarthLink offered to give the network away for free, and offered an additional $2 million in equipment, and still couldn’t find any takers, said Goldman. EarthLink is seeking permission in federal court to take down its $17 million in hardware. The company requires court approval because of the nature of the partnership among EarthLink, Wireless Philadelphia and the city.
Earthlink wants to remove their Wifi nodes next month.
“We assert that EarthLink does not have the ability under this arrangement to unilaterally do anything like that,” said Goldman.
EarthLink complained this week that it was losing up to $200,000 a month in Philadelphia for a system that was expected to draw more than 100,000 customers but had only 5,942 subscribers. EarthLink said 908 were digital-inclusion customers who pay about half the regular monthly $19.95 rate.
EarthLink – not city taxpayers – put up the multimillion-dollar investment to build the system, notes the Philadelphia Inquirer. Former Mayor John F. Street, a technology guru, negotiated the high-profile deal in an effort to blanket the city with WiFi — the nation’s largest municipal wireless system.
The network, about 75% complete, covers most of Philadelphia, the 5th largest U.S. city, with one million residents. Earthlink hoped to sell its muni Wi-Fi business after writing down a $20.7 million charge on discontinued municipal Wi-Fi operations. Now they’re having a hard time giving it away.
The vision was there, the business wasn’t.
Wired Magazine has mapped hundreds of municipal wireless projects on Google Maps. Most are smaller cities and counties, where bureaucracies are less onerous and costs are lower. Here’s a pdf version (224k).
Here’s a recap of Municipal Wireless Project in the United States:
- Portland, Oregon: MetroFi, says it needs an infusion of cash to complete the 134 sq mile system (video), and now wants the city to become an anchor tenant. The city so far has said no, insisting that MetroFi has a contractual obligation to try to complete the network, now used by about 15,000 users per month. Portland spent more than $250,000 planning for the network and paying Logan Kleier, the city staffer responsible for overseeing the project.
- EzWireless designed and built a mobile, secure, broadband and web-based network covering 700 square miles in Eastern Oregon five years ago. It enabled local fire & police departments in seven cities, parts of three counties and two states. It’s the largest WiFi system in the United States — and the first. That system works.
- New Orleans is about to lose its municipal Wi-Fi network with EarthLink planning to halt its participation in the citywide project on May 18. First, EarthLink tried to sell the network outright. Second, it sought to transfer ownership of the network to the city of New Orleans. Finally, it tried to transfer the network to a third party. All three approaches failed.
- Corpus Christi, which sold their system to EarthLink is now getting it back. EarthLink is shutting down public WiFi access for the City of Corpus Christi on May 16, 2008. The City Council opted to take back control and return the network to its original purpose–smart meter reading and other municipal services. EarthLink will not be forced to pay a promised $1.59 million, but the city will get roughly $3 million in equipment and upgrades.
Tempe, Ariz.: Passed through at least three owners in less than three years. The current owner, Globility, came to an impasse with its suppliers, and unplugged the network’s authentication servers. The city declared Globility in default of the contract and may declare the network abandoned.
- Kite Networks, ran the Tempe and Chandler, Arizona, systems, which have since shut down. MobilePro sold their Kite Networks division (NeoReach), to Gobility last year. Gobility has been trying to sell to a California firm.
- San Francisco’s WiFi Network never got off the ground. A Meraki network is developing in San Francisco, from its origin as a 1-square-mile testbed and is based on MIT’s RoofNet. Currently, the network covers about 2 square miles, and offers 1Mbps wireless connections, says Sanjit Biswas, Meraki’s CEO and co-founder. Meraki is funding the San Francisco deployment, as a showcase of what the technology can do. SFLan aims to build a wireless network with LAN characteristics on a metropolitan scale and are proposing a city-wide network that addresses low income users, in lieu of the pullout by Earthlink.
- OpenAirBoston Regroups; Becomes Open. City leaders insisted they aren’t backing away from their ultimate goal of Wi-Fi in every corner of Boston. Instead, they said, they’re abandoning their original timetable to refocus on a series of neighborhood “bubbles” that test technology and business models.
- Dallas and Chicago are deploying wireless video surveillance networks in specific areas. ABI predicts this global market alone will grow from $16 billion today to $45 billion eight years from now.
- Wireless Minneapolis: About 85% of the city is covered with an 4.9GHz public safety band deployed. It is being used now by some inspectors and public works employees, and was widely praised during the Minneapolis bridge collapse last year. USI Wireless, found not all poles can sustain the weight and that electricity was only turned on by photoelectric cells at dusk, raising cost. Minneapolis (pop: 385,000), has signed up about 8,000 users, from roughly 175,000 households. A number of free-access sites and zones have been installed around the city and a portion of the profits go to a digital inclusion fund.
- St. Louis. AT&T’s wireless Internet network is up and running in one square mile of downtown St. Louis. Don’t expect to see a citywide system any time soon, though. More than a year ago, the company proposed a wireless network among the city’s 62 square miles, but AT&T and the city couldn’t find a cost-effective way to power the WiFi nodes. The citywide plan was nixed in October.
- In Grand Rapids, Clearwire is building a WiMAX network that covers all 45 square miles of the city with the city trading access to infrastructure in exchange for reduced rates for government and low income access. Clearwire only requires 10 to 15 towers to cover 100 square miles, versus some 40 WiFi access points per square mile at $100K per square mile for WiFi. Do the math.
- Cablevision will build a WiFi network in New York City, paying some $350 million, or $100 per subscriber, to create a wireless network that’s free for its cable modem subscribers. All others pay cash. The 5th largest cable company says it expects to complete New York’s WiFi network around 2010.
- Long Island’s wireless Internet project a $150-million Wi-Fi system to cover 750 of the Island’s 1,200 square miles without a dollar of taxpayer funds, is months past its initial target date and its future looks doubtful, says Newday.
- Azulstar a municipal operator in in Albuquerque and elsewhere, is now switching to the quasi-licensed 3.65 Ghz band for longer range with less interference. They’re using equipment from Airspan and Redline.
- Wireless Silicon Valley. The grandeous Wireless Silicon Valley vision of two years ago, reaching some 2.4 million people, was first scaled back to several test phases. Then, Azulstar, the startup that was to build and operate the network, couldn’t get funding even for two test networks, at about $500,000 each.
- The Lawrence Freenet Project, a grass roots approach, has been billed as a success. The network, operational since August 2005, is made up of three entities; a non-profit Lawrence Freenet, a for-profit service provider, Community Wireless Communications (CWC), and The City of Lawrence, Kansas. The non-profit doesn’t have to pay monthly rental fees to use the city’s right of way in exchange for providing “digital divide” access, while the for-profit side is turning a profit.
Sascha Meinrath, research director, Wireless Future Program, at the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C. public policy group, argues that 2007 showed the failure of the free market approach to critical infrastructure. Government has a traditional role, he writes, as the builders and maintainers of critical infrastructure.
Personal Telco Project (PTP) in Portland, is building a network from the ground up, using volunteers, Linksys or similar Wi-Fi routers reflashed with the WiFiDog software, and shared DSL or fiber broadband connections. They unwired the Mississippi neighborhood in north Portland.
Like Meinrath, PTP prez Michael Weinberg sees a synergy between community efforts and municipal policy goals. “What I’d like to see Portland do is get on the viral side of this,” he says. “There are hundreds of thousands of broadband connections [in the city]. We could unwire Portland tomorrow if enough people got on board.”
Here’s an interesting fact; DailyWireless is posting this story using Portland MetroFi’s FREE WiFi service. It’s been our sole source of internet connectivity for 6 months.