Wilting Muni WiFi
Remember that glowing column I wrote about the prospects of city-wide wireless networks? It's looking a little ahead of its time--which is to say that "ahead of its time" could be my new synonym for "wrong."
Since that piece ran in April, the Internet provider behind most of the largest efforts--Atlanta-based EarthLink--has begun to bail out of the business. It abandoned its efforts in San Francisco and in other major cities, as a front-page story in USA Today last week summarized.
Locally, EarthLink has told the two governments with which it had already inked contracts--Alexandria and Arlington--that it wants to rework its deals to have each jurisdiction pay for a set amount of service upfront. Company spokesman Jerry Grasso e-mailed at the end of August:
we are approaching govt. officials to discuss needed changes in our business model, which includes them stepping up to some sort of anchor tenancy agreement. Our CEO has stated publicly that he is not willing to invest any more money in new network build outs under the old business model: coming in up front with the cash to build out the network and trying to buy customers one at a time.
Grasso said that EarthLink continues to operate completed muni WiFi networks in Corpus Christi, New Orleans, and Milpitas, Calif., plus two under construction in Anaheim and Philadelphia.
Since then, nothing too positive seems to have happened with the two local WiFi projects. Grass had no news to report this morning. Alexandria's existing wireless network is now "temporarily unavailable," and in Arlington, county spokesman Rob Billingsley e-mailed to say the county has yet to hear anything new from EarthLink. "We still continue to work on improving the options Arlington residents have for broadband access," he wrote in an e-mail Monday morning. "Simply put, the ball's in Earthlink's court and we are moving on."
So is municipal WiFi an unworkable concept? My earlier optimism now seems a bit overenthusiastic, but I don't think the entire idea can be written off just yet.
Remember, Alexandria received 10 bids (PDF) to run a citywide wireless network. Would all of them have gotten cold feet by now if they'd won the contract?
If you were in charge of bringing municipal wireless to one of the two local jurisdictions, what would you do next--renegotiate with EarthLink, reopen the bidding or punt on the project?
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