What does the Earthlink shake-up mean for the future of city wifi?

With Earthlink being one of the business leaders in providing city wi-fi solutions, it remains unclear what the future of Earthlink's projects will be and what effect this news will have on the future of other city-wide wi-fi initiatives.

Update: SFGate reported this morning that Earthlink will be withdrawing their contract with the City of San Francisco to provide wireless internet. It is unclear what the City's plans for future broadband development are at this point in time.

It was almost four years ago that Philadelphia became the first major city in the US to announce their plans to blanket their city with wi-fi connectivity. It was a big deal, and other cities followed suit using a variety of approaches.

After Pennsylvania passed legislation prohibiting municipalities from getting into the wireless business, Philadelphia partnered with Earthlink to develop a wireless infrastructure that offers free service in certain parks while offering wifi in private homes and business at market rates with subsidies for the poor. In San Francisco, where I live, the bid was awarded to a partnership between Google and Earthlink. With today's news that Earthlink is restructuring its company and losing the head of it's municipal wi-fi intiative, it remains unclear what the future of Earthlink's projects will be and what effect this news will have on the future of other city-wide wi-fi initiatives.

Before I continue, in the interest of transparency it is important that I disclose that I am a 2007 San Francisco mayoral candidate, and to point out that my outlook on the state of wireless is part of my platform.

With that said, I was quite excited when I first heard about San Francisco's plan to establish free wireless internet throughout the city. It simply sounded too good to be true; the plan promised free internet without spending any of the City's money. After a little more information materialized, it became apparent that this would be done through targeted advertising and Google's name seemed to enter the conversation at about the same time. At the end of the bidding process, a partnership between Google and Earthlink beat out the competition; suddenly the promises of free wi-fi started to look a bit tarnished as the details surfaced.

Under the proposed plan, a throttled 300-kilobits-per-second connection would be provided through Google while Earthlink would offer a higher-speed premium alternative costing approximately $20 each month. While the initiative did draw some support, it also generated a variety of opponents who refused to support the plan for a number of reasons including concerns about privacy and health matters.

I personally didn't like the plan as it neglected its original intended purpose: to bridge the digital divide and help our disadvantaged communities get online. At best, it would provide unequal internet access, but it also fails to address those individuals who don't already have a computer and would likely also need some support to become proficient on the internet. Of course, these concerns may now be moot as it's reported Earthlink is unlikely to continue the project.

So what is the answer to bridging the digital divide? Clearly wi-fi isn't enough, and it doesn't seem feasible to provide a laptop computer to every American who can't afford one. Community centers that can provide 24-hour internet access and limited support seems like one possible solution and establishing public internet terminals at bus stops is another approach that can be implemented as well. Perhaps wi-fi isn't the answer either, San Francisco recently released a draft study examining the potential for a municipal fiber optic network and it appears that this may prove to be a more viable solution now that Earthlink's future is so uncertain.
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