EarthLink's Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

By Eric Griffith

May 24, 2007

Good news in Philadelphia and from a local college comes on the heels of further stalls in San Francisco.

What used to be the city for creating controversy around municipal Wi-Fi -- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania -- is now the city where ISP-turned-WISP EarthLink is feeling the most brotherly love.

Conversely, hyper-techie San Francisco continues to put the breaks on EarthLink delivering similar service anytime soon.

Today, the company reported that mayor John F. Street proclaimed that Wireless Philadelphia, the nonprofit formed to facilitate the citywide network (which EarthLink will own), has given the okay for moving forward. The company has, to date, built a 15-square-mile test zone network. The nonprofit liked how it performed after third-party testing, enough to give the go-ahead on deploying the full 135-square-mile mesh network needed to cover the city.

To further bolster EarthLink, Drexel University, with three campuses in Philadelphia, has established a deal with the company to allow the 28,000 registered wireless devices Drexel supports on its Dragonfly network to roam for a limited time each month on the EarthLink muni-Fi (which will cost about $20 a month for subscribers after a six-month introductory rate of $7 a month). Drexel has had all three campuses unwired since 2000. It's one of 80 colleges in the city, which is home to 300,000 students.

300,000 households in Philadelphia will have access to the network by the end of May, said EarthLink president Donald Berryman in a statement released today. A constantly updated coverage map is available online. Select areas of the city will have free access, including Norris Square, Love Park, the Historic District, and Capitolo Playground.

In San Francisco, however, the ongoing process of getting a wireless network, to be installed by EarthLink with help from Google, has been held up again by the Board of Supervisors until July.  Mayor Gavin Newsom said this week to MarketWatch, ““It’s frustrating. It’s been a two-year process, a two-year odyssey. We came up with what we think is the best proposal of its kind in the United States. Not only is it the best economic proposal for the taxpayers… no cost out of our pocket…”

EarthLink is indeed paying for the installation of its network in Philadelphia, and would in San Francisco, as it has in previous smaller locations -- work on its Houston contract has yet to begin -- but recently said it would be rethinking that approach and responding to fewer requests for proposal from municipalities because of it.

Newsom went on to say that if the Supervisors don’t pass this, San Francisco will be “one of the last cities in the United States to have Wi-Fi.” He says there is no backup plan if it falls through, but claims “EarthLink feels good about it” and that “Google’s still holding on.”

On the Wi-Fi Networking News blog, pundit Glenn Fleishman says the delays in San Fran are par for the course when “citizens, interested parties (commercial and nonprofit and NGO), and elected and appointed officials, along with bureaucrats, all get together to make it work or not.” But the delay does mean Philadelphia again becomes the poster-child for major-metropolitan citywide Wi-Fi.

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