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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.

Powerline broadband, in which Internet connections ride over your electrical wires, has also hit the skids lately.

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?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  May 14, 2008; 12:10 PM ET
Categories:  Telecom  
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Comments

Friends of mine in Minneapolis have been giving subdued reactions to their citywide Wifi. Some of them get generally good service for their home use, but they are close to an antenna. Other areas of the city are spotty and sometimes need to be supplemented with the use of a booster modem to improve signal strength. Several of them say that heavy data video files can be problematic. They're encouraged by some of the improvements that have been ongoing, but worried that unless service is consistently more reliable it will not be worthwhile to continue supporting. I guess it's too early to tell, but they've all said that its use with the bridge collapse last year has truly shown its potential and they really want to see it succeed.

Posted by: DC | May 14, 2008 1:05 PM | Report abuse

I have Wi-Max here in rural NM and it works great - I am not sure why the delay in getting it deployed elsewhere - but thought you would like to know that it works!

Posted by: brian every | May 14, 2008 2:11 PM | Report abuse

Broadband types available:
Cable company (DOCSIS)
Phone company, Fios
Phone company, DSL
Cell phone, EVDO or other high speed.

The last costs a good deal more, but may be worth it for the highly mobile.

Posted by: wiredog | May 14, 2008 2:46 PM | Report abuse

I am proud to say I am a Philly resident and have been for over 20 years. And over the years I have seen many ambitious projects, well for lack of a better word... FAIL. It's hard to get your hopes up anymore.

You know what I'm talking about Philly, the parking lot on 8th and Market that was to be a multi million dollar indoor Disney Park subsequently turned into, of all things, a parking lot.

The obscure Penn's Landing pillars that stand alone with its twin missing on the Jersey side of the river. This was to be the foundation of a suspended alternative for crossing the Delaware via a suspended tram. Now it's a million dollar concrete billboard.

In early 2007, when I saw the aggressive campaign to WiFi the city, I was cautiously optimistic. Come on, I can WiFi my house, NASA can communicate to MARS Probes 171 Million miles away with just a 15 minute lag time, how hard can it be? Flyers canvassed my neighborhood, SEPTA buses dawned advertisements, all of the promise of a WiFi Philly. Then obscure boxes strung from light posts with upside down antennas started popping up, random signals were picked up by my laptop, I started feeling, well excited; a hard emotion to achieve for my dear City after my own Disney Park and another escape route out of Jersey was taken from.

With a newly revived hope in Philly, and the idea of roaming around Center City with my laptop and iPhone surfing the web at will, I inquired about the services, it wasn't hard to get the number, look under your windshield wiper, catch the side of a SEPTA bus, or any other plethora of ads scattered throughout the City.

"We are looking to service that area soon sir." "Really?", I replied to the representative. I lived but blocks from a busy commercial shopping area and heavily trafficked hot spot known as South Street, you mean to tell me that that area does not warrant a WiFi spot? OK, maybe it was still too early.

Fast forward 10 months, South Street was upgraded from no WiFi to spotty. Ads, flyers and bus banners dried up. I had no idea of the status of a WiFi Philly. Today, my hope and trust in another long line of disappointment was ruthlessly crushed when I saw this article today on washingtonpost.com "Philadelphia's WiFi Network Shutting Down".

Oh well, at least this time they are taking their equipment with them and not leaving a million dollar pigeon nest on the lamp posts.

Posted by: Kuya | May 14, 2008 3:51 PM | Report abuse

Ha, my gym in Old Town has ads up for Verizon Fios. Not exactly the best use of Verizon's marketing dollars if it's not coming for another year or two. We're not even wired for regular old DSL in my apartment building next to the gym.

Posted by: alexandria | May 14, 2008 4:48 PM | Report abuse

Williamsburg has a wi-fi setup around the colonial district and the college. it works well enough, even though it is only 802.11b. can't complain too much if it's free.

the only problem is trying to figure out which one belongs to the college and which one is the city's.

not much advertising of it, though.

Posted by: mik | May 14, 2008 6:10 PM | Report abuse

It's hard not to be smug, but here in Mountain View we have public WiFi provided by Google. It doesn't do me any good, though- I live in a concrete apartment complex on the ground floor and get no reception at all. OTOH, Googlers can work anywhere in the city.

Posted by: Judith | May 14, 2008 11:35 PM | Report abuse

I live in Philly and was looking forward to WiFi so I could access the internet on the go. The business model was flawed from the start. I know a goal was to provide service to low income areas but shouldn't you build the system in more upscale areas where people will pay the full rate for service to provide an income stream? The area where I live never had service. However an industrial street on the fringe of the airport has several transmitters. (But not in the terminals of the airport that is an ATT wifi pay service)

Philly seems to have problems with the digital service world. On top of failed Wifi, Comcast through an FCC loophole punishes people who subscribe to Directv and Dish by blocking local sports teams. (we didn't get cable at all until the late 1980's) Fiber Optic service is also spotty for internet or FIOS.

Wireless WiFi has a market if it presented with a business model that has substainable cash flow.

Posted by: William Smith | May 15, 2008 8:02 AM | Report abuse

Of course municipal wifi was never going to work. Ask any engineer and they would have told you that. It was stupid to attempt the project in the first place. It's all hype. Wifi was never intended for more than one or two users in a very limited space. There is no QoS, no scheduling, no interference management, etc... It was never designed for a cellular style deployment. We needed a system designed for that. Even Wi-Max doesn't get it right. The real answer was Flash-OFDM, but alas, you must travel to Slovakia to enjoy the true pleasures of country-wide mobile broadband...

Posted by: Joe | May 15, 2008 8:59 AM | Report abuse

WiFi failed in Philly because most of Philly is relatively low density, there was no revenue model to support it, and government "services" (especially in our fair city) tend to cost a lot and deliver awful quality.

It's no big loss to Philadelphians. I have a Sprint EVDO card for my computer, and for less than the cost of a landline with DSL from Verizon, I have a cell phone and a high-speed wireless data connection for my laptop with a good strong signal that works just about everywhere in the USA.

"Free" municipal WiFi was a dead-end pipe dream, it just took typical Philadelphia government incompetence to show just how bad the idea was.

Posted by: Brian Miller | May 15, 2008 11:06 AM | Report abuse

The business model that Earthlink used isn't sustainable... but others are. We've got a free wifi network here in Blossburg, Pennsyltucky. Our organization, Blossburg V.I.B.E. bought the equipment (thanks Dept. of Community & Economic Development & Pa. Sen. Scarnati!) and folks who already had DSL contribute bandwidth to the meraki-based mesh network.
www.blossburg.org/vibe
www.blossburg.org/wifi

We're so much cooler than Philly :-)

Posted by: Blossburg V.I.B.E. | May 15, 2008 4:14 PM | Report abuse

This just a couple of days after a Post I.T. blog entry:

"Wi-Fi Warning: That Person Next To You May Be A Hacker" - http://blog.washingtonpost.com/posttech/2008/05/wifi_warning_that_person_next.html?nav=rss_blog

Go on... play with fire, if you like.

Posted by: James | May 19, 2008 8:07 AM | Report abuse

unfortunately there is, and has never been, a business model for free broadband over municipal wifi, not in Philly, not in the US, not in the UK, where I live. Even if you provide a subscription service or target advertising revenues, the business model is slim. Wifi cannot provide the bandwidth most people want much of the time, so for the majority of us most of our web use will be done through some form of fixed wire. This will increase as FTTP rolls out, as people will become used to the massive bandwisths available and services will be developed to exploit the same. People who want/need mobile broadband usually do so as an adjunct, and can be perfectly well served by any commercial cell phone system.

Philadelphia city would be better putting its money into supporting the roll out of FTTP. Visited your beautiful city in 1986 - best wishes paul Kent England UK

Posted by: paul | May 28, 2008 11:23 AM | Report abuse

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