Was EarthLink's failed citywide Wi-Fi a blessing in disguise?

Wireless Philadelphia, the nonprofit charged with providing broadband bundles to low-income families in Philadelphia, may be better off in the long run without EarthLink.

The implosion of EarthLink's citywide Wi-Fi business may have been the best thing that ever happened to Wireless Philadelphia, the nonprofit charged with helping Philadelphia bridge the digital divide.

Independence Hall, Philadelphia Marguerite Reardon/CNET Networks

Now under new management, the citywide Wi-Fi network that was originally funded and built by EarthLink will have a new business model, better coverage, and a new contract that should make it easier for Wireless Philadelphia to meet its primary goal of getting low-income families online.

"The new network owners are supposed to have a much more sustainable business model," said Karen Perry, director of the Connected Communities team for the Knight Center of Digital Excellence. "The fact that they are also focused on wired and wireless access will also improve the quality of the network, which could be very important for providing the nonprofit a more vibrant set of options."

Philadelphia had big plans to bring broadband and the Internet to the masses when it announced in 2005 that it was building the nation's largest Wi-Fi network spanning some 135 square miles. Wireless Philadelphia, a city-sponsored nonprofit, was created to provide the city's poor with an entire package of services to get them online. This package includes not only low-cost broadband access, but computers, training, technical support, and new applications.

While EarthLink provided a good portion of the initial funding for Wireless Philadelphia to get off the ground, the restrictive exclusive contract in some ways hamstrung the nonprofit's efforts and tied its success to the success of the network and the technology.

When EarthLink decided earlier this year that it was exiting the citywide Wi-Fi business, it looked like Wireless Philadelphia was doomed. But days before the network was to be shut down in June, a group of local investors swooped in and took over the network, promising a new business model and a revitalized plan.

Network Acquisition Company, which acquired the network, hasn't talked publicly about the details of its new plan, but it has hinted that its strategy will differ from EarthLink's. For one, it will use wired infrastructure to provide backhaul capacity to the Wi-Fi network. This should help improve coverage and capacity issues. NAC also plans to sign up more business customers and city agencies as anchor tenants of the network, guaranteeing bigger chunks of revenue to keep the network up and running.

These improvements, along with a new non-exclusive contract, could liberate the nonprofit and help it expand its reach and effectiveness in the community. And if Wireless Philadelphia can show successful outcomes for individuals and the city as a whole, it could serve as a model for policy makers looking to form a national broadband policy.

Defining the digital divide

There's been a lot of chatter over the years about the digital divide or the idea that there is a great chasm between people who have access to technology such as computers and the Internet, and those who do not. While some 68 percent of the U.S. population has access to the Internet via broadband or dial-up connections, there are still millions of people across the country who do not have any access at all.

Overwhelmingly, these unconnected individuals tend to be minorities and people with low education levels. A recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that only 57 percent of African Americans and 37 percent of Hispanics have Internet access. And only 29 percent of people who have not graduated from high school are connected to the Internet.

It's difficult to gauge what the impact of this exclusion means. In the past, Internet access was viewed as an unnecessary luxury, a tool used to send e-mail and casually surf Web sites. But increasingly, the Internet has become an important tool for getting information about and access to just about everything from health care to social services. It's used as a tool to engage parents in their children's education. And as newspapers shed their classified listings, it's become an important tool for looking for jobs.

"Digital inclusion has traditionally been seen as a charity initiative," The Knight Foundation's Perry said. "But that is rapidly changing. Increasingly, cities of all types--urban, suburban, and rural--are linking universal digital access to economic development imperatives."

From the beginning, Wireless Philadelphia's goal has been to provide broadband service to families who have never owned a computer and have little or no online experience. The group believes that getting these families online will increase their access to educational, employment, and life opportunities.

But it will also have big benefits for the city, such as reducing crime and unemployment, improving public health and social service efficiency, and increasing educational excellence.

"It's nearly impossible to apply for an entry-level job today without having basic digital skills and Internet access," Greg Goldman, CEO of Wireless Philadelphia said. "And there have been studies that show patients who access information online about HIV AIDS, hypertension, or diabetes have better health outcomes."

Partnering for results

Wireless Philadelphia has developed a somewhat unique approach to solving this complicated problem. For example, the group provides an entire package of services, which includes free or subsidized Internet access, a new or refurbished computer and modem, training, and technical support through nonprofit partners, which focus on specific needs, such as maternal health, job placement, or education.

"It's not just about simply providing cheap access to broadband," Goldman said. "It's about delivering a total package and finding a suitable way to deliver that package. You can offer $15 a month DSL, but without the programs that provide a way for people to get the hardware, the training, and the technical support it won't be successful."

A key part of Wireless Philadelphia's approach is its partnerships with other nonprofits. For example, Wireless Philadelphia offers its package to participants of a statewide welfare-to-work program. In exchange for completing the necessary requirements for the program, each individual receives a "digital inclusion package."

The package becomes an enticing incentive for welfare-to-work clients to complete their training, and it provides a long-lasting tool that clients can use long after the training program ends. Working with partners also means Wireless Philadelphia doesn't have to deal with screening and qualifying clients for its program, reducing the cost and hassle of administering the program. It also integrates the broadband bundle with a specific need. And finally, it helps provide the necessary funding for the project to continue. Currently, Wireless Philadelphia has 30 funding sources and more than 30 community partners.

While Wireless Philadelphia's ambitions have always been big, under the old deal with EarthLink, the nonprofit was tied to the partially built, and often unreliable, Wi-Fi network. From the earliest stages of deployment, EarthLink Wi-Fi users complained of poor signal quality indoors.

Testing the Wi-Fi network in Philadelphia. Marguerite Reardon/CNET Networks

Even outdoors, some parts of the network perform better than others. For example, on a recent visit to Philadelphia, I stood directly under an EarthLink access point and discovered I was only getting download speeds of 768 kilobits per second and uploads of 494 kbps when I ran a Speakeasy broadband test. EarthLink had advertised the service at 1.5 Mbps per second.

Of course, there are many possible explanations for why I was getting these much slower speeds. Maybe the network was congested because there were a lot of users in the area. Or perhaps there was an issue with the Wi-Fi mesh or the backhaul. Or maybe the test was flawed. Whatever the cause, performance was not optimal.

NAC, which now owns the EarthLink network, and Tropos, the company whose equipment has been used to build the network, declined to speak to me for this article. Instead, their spokespeople said the companies would talk more about the network later this month when details of the new business plan are ready.

So far, what is known about NAC's approach is that the company plans to finish building out the network, which is 80 percent complete, within the next 12 to 18 months. And it plans to use a hybrid Wi-Fi and wireline technology to improve coverage and capacity.

But more importantly for Wireless Philadelphia, the nonprofit will no longer have to rely on one network provider for broadband access. Starting this fall, Goldman said that the group will approach other network operators about working with them to offer their broadband access as part of the Digital Inclusion bundle in areas of the city where it makes sense. If providers, such as Comcast and Verizon Communications, are willing to work with Wireless Philadelphia, it could greatly improve the reach and effectiveness of the program.

"Reliable network access is key to our success," Goldman said. "If our clients can't reliably connect to the Internet and get consistent, speedy connections, they won't use the services.

Wireless Philadelphia is also supporting Google's petition to the Federal Communications Commission to open up unused wireless frequencies called "white spaces," which sit between digital TV channels, to help expand the availability of inexpensive broadband access.

"Wireless Philadelphia is dedicated to closing the digital divide and believes the movement to open white spaces can greatly assist this effort nationally," the group said in an e-mail urging its supporters to sign the petition. "Continued technological innovation in this area will help make critical communications tools more open and available for everyone."

But in the end, Wireless Philadelphia must prove that broadband access matters. As an initial step toward this, the group is working with the OMG Center for Collaborative Learning to conduct a "Rapid Assessment" of the impact of the Digital Inclusion program to date. Initial results should be available later this year.

If the results of this assessment, as well as future assessments, can show marked improvements for individuals and eventually entire communities, it could help fuel the movement for a national broadband policy.

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