EarthLink's woes put free muni Wi-Fi in peril

EarthLink says it can't afford to foot the bill to build citywide Wi-Fi networks, jeopardizing cities' plans to provide low-income residents with affordable broadband.

EarthLink's scaled-back municipal Wi-Fi business has jeopardized many cities' plans to bring free or low-cost broadband to low-income residents.

A day after EarthLink announced a massive restructuring that would essentially put almost half its employees out of work, the company wriggled its way out of contracts with Houston and San Francisco to build their citywide Wi-Fi projects. For each of these cities, providing free or low cost wireless broadband was the main reason for building the networks.

Over the past few years, blanketing cities with unlicensed Wi-Fi signals has been viewed as a cheap solution to bringing affordable or even free broadband access to cities. Politicians and community leaders have rallied around the technology as an economic development tool that could help bring low-income individuals into the bustling economy of the 21st century.

But as the economic reality of building a network primarily to serve up low-cost broadband access settles in at EarthLink, the company's top brass says the strategy isn't viable. And as a leader in this industry, cities are now scrambling to find alternative ways to finance their Wi-Fi dreams.

Several cities have already reacted to EarthLink's change of heart by canceling or putting their projects on hold. Chicago, whose main objective was building a network to provide ubiquitous and affordable broadband access, said earlier this week that it has halted its plans for a citywide Wi-Fi project after it couldn't come to terms with demands made by AT&T and EarthLink, which were both bidding for the contract. And in addition to Houston and San Francisco, Alexandria and Arlington, Va., and St. Petersburg, Fla.--all EarthLink Wi-Fi cities-- have also put their projects on hold.

"It's easy to talk about digital inclusion when you're not paying the bill to build the network," said Craig Settles, an independent wireless consultant. "So I'm sure some cities that likely weren't really serious about it in the first place won't pursue it. But for cities that are serious, they'll push forward and either lay down some bucks themselves or find other alternatives for funding."

On Wednesday, EarthLink said it would pay a $5 million penalty to the city of Houston to get a nine month extension on its contract. Later that same day, EarthLink also said it was killing plans to build San Francisco's citywide network.

"EarthLink's decision to scale back its municipal Wi-Fi has put the entire muni wireless market in a state of flux."
--Richard Lewis,
Houston CIO

San Francisco's mayor, Gavin Newsom, has pledged to continue to pursue free Wi-Fi for all San Franciscans. Houston's chief information officer, Richard Lewis, also said the city is committed to building a wireless network.

"EarthLink's decision to scale back its municipal Wi-Fi has put the entire muni wireless market in a state of flux," he said. "But I believe wireless is the future. So in the grand scheme of things, this just means that our wireless infrastructure won't go in as early as we had hoped."

Philadelphia was the first city to make bridging the digital divide its primary objective for building a citywide Wi-Fi network. And EarthLink, which won the high-profile contract in 2005, quickly became the go-to company to make this promise a reality.

Soon cities all over the country jumped on the bandwagon. But it was Google's promise of delivering free Wi-Fi access through advertising that pushed expectations beyond reality, Settles said.

"Everyone wanted to be another Philadelphia," he said. "But they didn't understand the complexities of how Philadelphia structured its nonprofit organization to help defray costs. And then Google and San Francisco said they wanted to give access away for free, setting up unrealistic expectations."

By most counts, Philadelphia was extremely lucky in being the first major city to propose such a network. As a result the company negotiated an extremely good deal with EarthLink, which promised to pay $15 million to build the network and provide service. The contract, which spans 10 years, requires the city only to provide access to light poles and other structures to deploy the wireless radios. It does not require the city to spend any amount of money with EarthLink on services, although city officials say it will likely become a customer.

Unlike San Francisco's proposed plan, Philadelphia does not provide free residential Internet access, although access is free in some outdoor public areas. Instead EarthLink charges $20 a month for its residential service. A nonprofit organization called Wireless Philadelphia subsidizes the cost for low-income households through grants.

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