Last night, the city of Philadelphia announced that EarthLink will be the primary vendor responsible for the rollout and future management of the much talked about (and frequently maligned, even before launch) citywide network project called Wireless Philadelphia.
The Atlanta-based EarthLink was one of two finalists — the other being Hewlett-Packard — narrowed down from a list of 12.
The network will be built using equipment from Tropos Networks to cover 135 square miles. Motorola’s Canopy system will be used for wireless backhaul.
EarthLink’s network for Philly will include a revenue share with the Wireless Philadelphia nonprofit organization, saving anywhere from $10 to $15 million dollars, according to Dianah Neff, the city CIO, as quoted in the Philadelphia Daily News. EarthLink will, in fact, put up the initial financing for the network. The revenue stream will help Wireless Philadelphia pay for digital divide programs, making sure low-income families can get cheap ($10 to $20 per month) Internet access. The expectation is that 85,000 subscribers will sign up during the first year, which critics say is an overestimation. Estimates are that anywhere from 42 to 55 percent of Philly has no Internet access at all, while 174,000 households are using dial-up only. Verizon now offers dial-up for $15 per month in the city.
The deal with EarthLink still needs to be finalized in the next two months with contracts — which can’t happen until the city council gives approval for the mounting of 3,000 pieces of Tropos equipment on city light poles.
Last week at the first Muniwireless Conference, EarthLink announced it was creating a municipal wireless division. According to Esme Vos of MuniWireless.com, that is “a sign that the company is very serious about rolling out citywide Wi-Fi around the U.S.”
EarthLink has already made a response to the request for information (RFI) from the city of San Francisco for its own TechConnect citywide wireless network. Google has stolen most of the press for its proposal to San Francisco; it wants to build the network at no cost to the city and to charge nothing for access, relying on ad revenue to pay the bills. However, other companies have also responded to the RFI, including Alvarion, AnchorFree, Cingular, Ericsson, Extreme Networks, Feeva, Gigabeam, Nortel, Motorola, Metro-Fi, SkyTel, Symbol and more. Overall, 24 proposals were received.
Google’s proposal for San Francisco may be facing an uphill battle before the city even has a chance to read it. Mayor Gavin Newsom says he expects opposition in the form of legal challenges, which are likely to come from incumbent Internet providers like Verizon, SBC and Comcast. Legislation that would outlaw municipal broadband is also likely. On the federal level, there are bills in play that are both dramatically pro and con toward municipal-run broadband services.
Newsom has said the TechConnect network could go live in as little as six months. Philadelphia, on the other hand, has been consistently delayed in getting to the point of this week’s “final” announcement.
EarthLink’s move to municipal wireless may be a necessity as it struggles with dwindling numbers of dial-up customers. Vos said in June, “If EarthLink wants to grow, it needs to make deals either with cities that will give EarthLink access to poles, or cities that will wholesale access to EarthLink.” The company already has service for its subscribers at hotspots throughout the United States through a partnership with Boingo Wireless. EarthLink is also planning to sell a suite of Voice over IP (VoIP) services, including free Internet calling and a wireless convergence service that would work over Wi-Fi. No word on if or when those services would be made available in Philadelphia.