Philadelphia's WiFi Network Shutting Down
One of the country's biggest experiment in citywide wireless Internet broadband has officially failed: On June 12, EarthLink will shut down the municipal WiFi network it had built across much of Philadelphia, then unbolt its transmitters from streetlights and ship them away.
The Atlanta-based Internet provider gave notice to the city yesterday after, it said, it had been unable to conclude a deal to hand over the network to another operator.
(Having watched the Nats play the Phillies enough times, I know that Philadelphians are by nature a reserved, quiet, non-judgmental lot. But if any Philly-area folks read this and would like to vent about the end of this venture, please be my guest!)
The demise of the city's "muni WiFi" initiative follows a string of earlier flops by EarthLink. It's now jilted governments across the country, including Alexandria and Arlingtonby bailing out of contracts it had signed to provide wireless access by planting WiFi transmitters in the public right of away.
As a taxpayer in one of those jurisdictions, I'm angry at EarthLink. As the author of a gushingly optimistic assessment of muni WiFi's promise a year ago (with the now cringe-inducing declaration that "Area-wide WiFi service could be the hammer that cracks open the broadband market and gives a choice beyond cable and DSL"), I'm embarrassed to have believed the hype.
Unfortunately, other would-be alternatives to cable and DSL are suffering their own problems. Verizon's Fios is slowly rolling out, but entire jurisdictions continue to be left out of this fiber-optic service. For instance, the District is still negotiating a franchise agreement with Verizon, while Alexandria says the service won't come to the city until late 2009.
WiMax, the souped-up wireless technology that's supposed to remedy WiFi's distance limitations, remains stuck in deployment limbo. It was once supposed to have been commercially available in the D.C. area by now, but Sprint's service launch appears to be much farther off at this point.
Strangely enough, however, some people in the wireless industry remain optimistic about muni WiFi itself--when it's not built to EarthLink's broken business model. At a panel discussion I led last month at a conference in D.C., WiFi experts recounted stories of successful wide-area WiFi deployments in such places as rural Michigan and Lawrence, Kansas.
I hope they're right, because the rest of the broadband picture isn't looking too great at the moment.
Let's try to tell the future: How many companies do you think will be offering to provide a broadband connection to your home in a year from now? How about three? Or five?
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