EarthLink's First Muni Wi-Fi Launches

By Eric Griffith

June 29, 2006

The first phase of Anaheim, California's network launched today, but controversy continues to dog current thinking about citywide wireless.

As of today at 11am Pacific Time, the ceremonial wire was to be cut to show that Anaheim, California's citywide Wi-Fi network was in business. The network is the first EarthLink Wi-Fi deployment courtesy of the company's Municipal Networks business unit. It's not quite the largest in the United States yet — as of today, they've only rolled out about six square miles out of 50 for the entire city.

EarthLink uses Motorola as the systems integrator installing its networks, with the preferred equipment provider being Tropos Networks. Audra Hoynacki, the general manager for Earthlink Wi-Fi in Anaheim, says when all is done, there will be about 1,500 Tropos nodes hanging on poles in town. They connect wirelessly to Motorola's own MOTOwi4 Canopy products placed on strategic rooftops in town for backhaul. (The largest deployment in the world is currently Taipei, Taiwan, at around 52 square miles with about 5,100 access points.)

"We're scheduled for build-out by the end of the year," says Hoynacki. "It's in phases as we acquire rooftop lease agreements."

Founded in 1994, EarthLink made its name as a dial-up Internet service provider (ISP). It's trying to revamp itself into a municipal wireless provider as its dial-up business dies out. EarthLink currently has agreements, if not signed contracts, to deploy mesh networks in seven other U.S. cities: Arlington, Virginia; San Francisco, Long Beach, Milpitas and Pasadena, California; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and New Orleans, Louisiana.

Cost to users in Anaheim (pop. 345,000; tenth largest in California and home of DisneyLand and the Mighty Ducks of the NHL) is $17.95 per months for the first three months, going up to $22 a month after that with a 12-month subscription (and a $70 fee to cancel early). The speed is promised at 1 Megabit per second for downloads. Subscribers get 8 mailboxes and EarthLink's tools for spam blocking.

Wi-Fi should be accessible from any outdoor spot in the coverage area. Residential customers can be outfitted with a customer premises unit (CPE) from PePLink that will help the Wi-Fi signal penetrate walls. It can be hooked directly to computers, or to a router if the household wants its own in-house Wi-Fi network. The PePLink equipment uses technology called Tropos Metro Compatible Extensions (TMCX).

The network is offered with "open access" to third party providers that want to piggyback on it to offer services to customers — the exact position EarthLink has been in for years, running on other company's lines for dial-up and cable/DSL broadband. EarthLink's ability to do that has been hampered lately by court cases throwing out wholesale rates on cable and DSL, and the Federal Communications Commission's reclassification of DSL as an information service, not a phone service, meaning phone companies providing DSL wouldn't have to share their lines without charging for it.

The Anaheim deployment comes after months of other big cities — primarily EarthLink's future customers, San Francisco and Philadelphia — getting big press about their plans. Recently, it's been called into question whether municipal wireless, perhaps using Wi-Fi in particular, will work. Small towns such as Chaska, Minnesota, previously thought to be successful, revealed that they had severe hiccups at first.

While the informal backlash begins, the federal government is making moves to make it easier for municipalities to create Wi-Fi networks. The Senate Commerce Committee determined Wednesday that states can't prohibit municipal-run broadband. The bill, called the Communications, Consumer's Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act, now goes to the Senate. The House of Representatives has its own telecom bill with different wording; both will have to be reconciled.  

This follows a couple of years of state governments running for and against the issue, depending on where you were. For instance, when Philadelphia announced plans to do citywide Wi-Fi (even before EarthLink was involved) a state law was passed making municipal-run broadband networks illegal without a waiver from local broadband providers. Philadelphia's plan was grandfathered in.

EarthLink favors the Senate bill. In most cases of municipal Wi-Fi these days, it's not the city getting into the broadband business, anyway. EarthLink, for example, pays for everything — deployment, training and management — while granting the city discounts for access in return for access rights to poles and buildings for installing equipment. Hoynacki says EarthLink pays $1 per pole per year for the right to hang the Tropos nodes. More and more requests for proposal (RFPs) from municipalities require this kind of give and take from vendors.

The other problem facing municipal networks is that of the privacy of individual users. EarthLink and Google have been taken to task for this by the EPIC, EFF and the ACLU over their joint plans for the San Francisco Wi-Fi roll-out, which is still under negotiation with the city, but which will certainly include limited (300Kbps) free access. At the GoogleBlog yesterday, a letter was posted from Christopher Shea, Google's head of special initiatives, addressing privacy. It stated, "Our proposed Wi-Fi service will embody standards of privacy higher than those of major access networks in existence today." For instance, while EPIC/EFF/ACLU want no sign-in required, Google says it will be "minimal registration" requiring a Google Account like that used to access Gmail or other Google services. Google plans to purge info related to free access every six months, but could not speak for EarthLink, which will charge for higher bandwidth connections, probably with the same pricing it's using in Anaheim.

Hoynacki couldn't address the San Francisco privacy concerns, but did say that, obviously, Anaheim users will have to log in and be certified as paying customers to get network access. There's no free service in Anaheim as of yet. That would have to come from a third-party provider that wants to give access away using EarthLink's infrastructure — a privilege for which it would have to pay EarthLink.

EarthLink is already heavily in the throes of marketing the network as they roll it out. They've sent out mailings, and tonight, they're one of the sponsors of the Taste of Anaheim, where they will sign up customers or put those outside of the current service area on a waiting list.

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