The Philadelphia Story, Part II

Carl Weinschenk


The Philadelphia municipal Wi-Fi was the highest-profile project undertaken by the sector. It failed, but is trying to rise from the ashes. Again, The City of Brotherly (But Not Necessarily Wi-Fi) Love will play a big role in determining the fate of muni Wi-Fi.


About a month ago, it was widely reported that Earthlink had pulled out. At that point, it was thought that the network, which has attracted only about 6,000 subscribers from the city's population of 1.4 million, was likely to close. This week, however, a group of local investors, going under the name Network Acquisition Company LLC, took over.


Plans still are a bit sketchy, but says that revenue from corporate customers will underwrite service to low-income areas. It also appears that the network will focus on providing outside service. That makes sense, since one of the big failings of the current network is its inability to consistently permeate structures.


We are coming close to determining whether the mediocre results for the industry segment are due to bad business plans or because not enough people are interested. While Philadelphia will be a key proving ground, it is fair to note that other projects are going along more or less as planned. Both healthy networks and those trying to rise like Phoenixes will have to do so in a competitive environment featuring 3G now and 4G in the not-too-distant future.


In many cases, these projects are wisely going to school on the experience of the projects that failed. The subtext of this Detroit Free Press story looking at the deployment of a municipal project is that the financial miscues made by other communities -- the assumption that enough revenue would be generated by consumers opting for faster tiers of service -- won't be repeated.


This is a thoughtful editorial from the Minneapolis StarTribune. The writer recounts the troubles in Philadelphia and, more locally, St. Louis Park. The Minneapolis project suffers from dead spots that are keeping police and firefighters from making a promised switch, but it can be termed a success. The city is an anchor tenant, and some non-emergency municipal workers already are on the network. In addition, about 9,6000 people are paying $20 per month for connectivity. The editorial fails to mention that the network provided stellar service when a bridge collapsed on I-35 last summer.


The Philadelphia project was once the poster child for what seemed like a world beater of an idea. It now has morphed into a crucial test of whether a new and, according to proponents, more realistic approach will work.

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