Technologicology Special Report: Like A Pussy Boyfriend, Earthlink Finally Breaks It Off With Wireless Philadelphia

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After the jump, Brian James Kirk provides a must-read on the status of Philly WiFi, and what Earthlink have half-assedly wrought.


Technologicology: Like A Pussy Boyfriend, Earthlink Finally Breaks It Off With Wireless Philadelphia


proof_of_concept_map1.jpg
This graphic from May 2007 should be burned like
a photograph of an old, double-crossing lover.

In a conference call on Friday, Earthlink announced that they are pulling the plug on their Municipal Wi-Fi service, the backbone of Wireless Philadelphia, and putting it up for sale. That is, if anyone wants it. CEO Rolla Huff explained that the reason was simple—cities expect too much:

It quickly became evident that we would have a really difficult time changing the perception by some of the cities that we owed them a free network rather than the city stepping up to make the business model viable for both them and for our shareholders.
Rolla Huff, CEO of Earthlink

Rolla, Rolla, Rolla. I can’t blame your memory, seeing as how you’ve only been running the Earthlink show for a short time, but that free network thing you’re talking about? Your company kinda promised it from the get-go. It’s not as if this is surprising. We already know that when you say things like “we’ve been in contact with the various municipalities and have had good productive dialogs,” like you did on Friday, it probably actually means you didn’t even show up, like that time you missed those progress hearings we held for you. Sigh. We just wanted to see your per-ty face.

We must move forward, yet the stakes are raised: What is Wireless Philadelphia and its hugely massive, didn’t-cost-tax-payers-a-penny, municipal Wi-Fi service up to next?

I contacted the oracles of wireless internet in search of answers. Municipal Wi-Fi industry analyst and author of Fighting The Good Fight For Municipal Wireless, Craig Settles, Seattle Times columnist and Wi-Fi Networking News Editor Glenn Fleishman, and the Philly Wi-Fi man himself, Greg Goldman, CEO of Wireless Philadelphia.

After receiving the “we must go on” treatment from Goldman, the “ain’t no thang” treatment from Settles, and the “there’s something we can learn from this” treatment from Fleishman, I’m not the least bit surprised to report that:

Although we must learn from this experience, it ain’t no thang, and we must go on.

You’re Either On The Bus Or Off The Bus

Over the last several months, it has complicated our local mission. It’s made the network’s future uncertain. Its been hard to focus on what we want to do. But Wireless Philadelphia is the initiative and Earthlink is the bus we were riding in. The bus broke down and now we’re going to get a new bus.
Greg Goldman, CEO of Wireless Philadelphia

Everyone involved saw Earthlink’s announcement on Friday as closure to an already crumbling relationship. In August, they expressed concern for their muni Wi-Fi business model and laid-off 900 employees, more than 50 percent of their workforce. In November, the company was considering “strategic alternatives” to the model, and it makes sense that with their internal struggles coupled with $32 million that was thrown at the project, it was time to let go. But, where did they go wrong? According to Craig Settles, Earthlink’s aspiration of consumer revenue was the beginning of the end:

People really have to understand that this network isn’t about general consumer access. Trying to create a general consumer service is absurd. To focus on digital inclusion or economic development would have a greater pay-off.
Craig Settles, municipal Wi-Fi industry analyst

Digital inclusion and economic development are precisely what Settles says makes Wireless Philadelphia such a successful project. Terry Phillis, the city’s Chief Information Officer, has always taken advantage of the network to the benefit of economic development; Greg Goldman has closely followed Wireless Philadelphia’s mission to bridge the information gap of underprivileged and under-connected neighborhoods. And although he has learned from Earthlink’s attempts, even Goldman still hopes to attract the consumer market. Hopefully, the grandiose vision of a wireless city network often painted by the media doesn’t impair his outlook. Wireless Philadelphia must stick close to it’s foundation.

If You Build It, They [Might] Come [Even If It's Practically Free]

We’re not looking to city government to bail us out.
Greg Goldman, CEO of Wireless Philadelphia

As it turns out, the city is in a damn good spot considering that Earthlink decided to dine and ditch. They left us with a project that is 80 percent complete, barely a penny spent by taxpayers. Phillis says he is expecting Earthlink to keep their end of the deal. Afterall, they signed a 10-year contract, a lifetime in the today’s telecommunication industry. But what ifs make the world go round. Considering that Earthlink continues their downward spiral and can’t find a buyer, what then?

This early, no one seems to know. After admitting the quote above, Goldman expressed that a “multi-faceted” approach would be best, hoping that several entities will be involved in the funding. But it sounded more like a prayer then a direction. While Goldman is humble in his quest, it wouldn’t be such a bad idea for the city to look into saving Wireless Philadelphia, according to Glenn Fleishman:

At this point, the city should consider hiring a firm to take over the network, and owning the assets. It’s unlikely another company could come in and offer what Philadelphia needs, unless it’s Comcast, and they’re not going to do that.
Glenn Fleishman, municipal industry Wi-Fi analyst

And why not? Fleishman and Settles both agreed that a properly maintained municipal service could actually save money in the long run:

It has a significant ability to cut cost and improve the quality of [the city's] mobile workers, remote facilities, and physical aspects. At the end of 2007 as it became clear that Earthlink was trying to get out of the business, Terri Phillis saw that [the network] was still a viable resource. There are a number of options on how they can manage finishing the network and continuing network operation.
Craig Settles, municipal Wi-Fi industry analyst

Perhaps the most compelling reason for Philadelphia is that, for one of the first times, we find ourselves on the cutting arc (it’s so advanced, it’s no longer an edge) of technological development. Considering the hope we have for a changing city, Settles, who used to call Philadelphia home, had some inspirational words:

There’s a point when you have to get past old Philadelphia and law down a new vibe. Municipal Wi-Fi represents a leading-edge development in the same way the new mayor is doing new things to improve the city.
Craig Settles, municipal Wi-Fi industry analyst

Despite setbacks, industry onlookers continue to use the project as a proof of concept for other cities looking into municipal Wi-Fi. But consumers must divorce the idea that the service is for them. It’s a way for the city to cut costs and bridge the digital divide, and that’s much bigger than you, man. If the public can accept the greater concept of the project and Goldman’s vision, our chance to shake the fact that we’re the least connected major metropolitan city in the country can be a reality.

Brian James Kirk is a writer and adventurer living in Philadelphia. By adventuring, he means occasionally to friends’ homes for games of Balderdash. If you know a Philadelphia technology scoop that would fit this space, you are graciously encouraged to get in touch.

Previously: Technologicology: Open Letter To Comcast

  • gr

    Right, so I can go ahead and cancel that account I opened a couple of months ago ’cause it was only $10/month to try it out that never actually worked once, I guess…

  • http://bostodelphia.blogspot.com C. The Impaler

    Wait, we were on a bus? I thought even that guy from Alaska knew the Internet was a bunch of tubes. But this is wireless, no conduit tubes but EM fields. Did Earthlink shit in our fields?

    gr, you’re probably out $1,200 ($10/month over ten years, you’ll probably get the last couple of months reimbursed when they finally admit they’re charging you for something that never existed).

    Could Verizon be a player in this, or are they like the rest of the cellcos thinking much bigger with their WiFi Max networks?