Anaheim's first taste of EarthLink muni Wi-Fi

With about 20 percent of the system operational, EarthLink is testing solutions to signal interference, user preferences.

Amanda Termen
Amanda Termen covers innovations in technology.
Amanda Termen
4 min read
EarthLink's Wi-Fi network in Anaheim, Calif., offers a taste of the wireless broadband service that soon will be rolled out in several larger U.S. cities. But it also underscores the challenges still facing municipal broadband projects.

Last week a ceremonial cable was cut in Anaheim to officially launch the company's first citywide Wi-Fi network. While the network shows commercial promise, according to EarthLink, its deployment highlights lingering technical issues, including problems with indoor coverage and signal interference from high-rise buildings.

Anaheim marks the start of a new, aggressive chapter for EarthLink, said the company's president and CEO, Garry Betty. Its eight citywide Wi-Fi contracts are an important step in moving away from the dependence on aging dial-up technology.

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Today EarthLink, which was founded as a dial-up provider in 1994, provides dial-up and broadband Internet access to 5.3 million subscribers. In the next two to four years--with the rollout of additional Wi-Fi services--Betty hopes to have 25 million homes on the company's subscriber list.

The Atlanta-based company is scheduled to install Wi-Fi networks in Philadelphia; San Francisco; New Orleans; Pasadena, Calif.; Arlington, Va.; Long Beach, Calif.; and Milpitas, Calif.

Anaheim's 49 square miles will be covered by a mesh of Wi-Fi routers mounted on streetlights. Owned and operated by EarthLink, the system includes Wi-Fi network technology from Tropos Networks.

Only 20 percent of the network in Anaheim is running so far, but at the end of the year it should be available for use by 340,000 of the city's residents and the more than 20 million visitors who come to Disneyland every year.

The network is still at an experimental stage, though. Donald Berryman, president of EarthLink municipal networks, sees Anaheim as a learning experience--promising but still far from perfect. "Until you build the network you don't understand how far it is penetrating the buildings, how fast is the speed and what people want to use it for. Then we'll optimize the network around them," he said.

For the moment service is limited to an upload and download speed of 1Mbps (megabit per second), similar to an average DSL or cable connection. The network has more to give, but EarthLink wants to make sure that all users can get good service on the network before the company increases its upload and download capacity, Berryman said.

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Interference has been a challenge, since the 2.4GHz radio frequency that the Wi-Fi system uses is unlicensed and open for all. "There's a lot going on in this space. There's interference from things like baby monitors and alarm systems. Anybody that uses the wireless technology could interfere with us," Berryman said.

The simplest solution to interference issues is to switch over to another of the three available Wi-Fi channels, but that still would require tuning of the routers around the city.

When Wi-Fi hits the wall
The toughest source of interference is walls. EarthLink is testing a device that will bring the data signal into people's homes. But even if the buildings of Anaheim can be conquered, some of the cities waiting for deployment might be tougher nuts to crack. Hills and high-rises are standing in the way.

"That's going to be an issue, that's phase two for us. Luckily in Anaheim there are no really tall buildings, but when we get into cities like San Francisco and Philadelphia there are a lot of those and there's all kinds of technologies we're looking at," Berryman said.

Signals from radios mounted on light poles could, at a maximum, reach the third or fourth floor a building. To make them go higher, EarthLink needs to pick up the signal from outside and transmit it through other means inside the structure. Broadband over power line technology and use of rooftop antennas are among the workarounds being tested, but the company has not yet settled on a particular solution.

The bill for the Wi-Fi rollout in Anaheim is expected to total almost $6 million, all paid by EarthLink. The return on the investment is expected to come from subscriptions sold by EarthLink and contracted partners such as AOL, DirecTV and PeoplePC.

Berryman thinks the network's promise of high speed, relatively low rates ($21.95 a month) and mobility will attract between 15,000 and 20,000 paying subscribers in Anaheim, as well as a decent number of the visitors, who can use the network for $7.95 a day.

Wi-Fi-enabled phones might bring in even more customers, Berryman notes. The company also sees a wireless future for municipal uses such as emergency services, parking meter servicing and remote readings of water meters.

Berryman estimates that it will take about two years for EarthLink's investment to pay off, and he is prepared to wait. "EarthLink has the resources to be in there for the long run. We believe in this technology. It's an important technology for our future," he said.

No free service will be offered in Anaheim, and Betty laughs at the suggestion. "Free doesn't work. I mean, what's for free? People are in business to make money. We need to get return on capital."

Paying customers are needed to guarantee reliability, upgrades and maintenance of the network, he said, calling the free 300Kbps service that will be subsidized by Google on the EarthLink network planned for San Francisco a rare exception. (A 1Mbps version of the service, costing subscribers about $20 a month, also will be available in San Francisco.) Because of the city's relatively high population density--it has about 750,000 residents in its 49 square miles--the network investment per user will be smaller.

"You could possibly get away with breaking even or making a little money in a city like San Francisco, but that's not the case anywhere else in the country," Betty said.