Philadelphia Wi-Fi Wont End Debate

EarthLink is set to build a Wi-Fi network that will provide high-speed Internet access to the city of Philadelphia. But the public battle over municipal Wi-Fi's is just beginning.

Lawyers and other industry experts are predicting that the public battle over the Philadelphia municipal Wi-Fi network is going to continue even in the aftermath of the citys selection of EarthLink for the $15 million to $18 million installation contract.

"Its been an interesting debate over the last year," said John E. Logan, who is a lobbyist, a private practice attorney in Washington D.C., and a former acting chief of the Federal Communications Commissions cable services bureau.

"What we have seen here are efforts by incumbents, specifically telephone companies, seeking to protect their markets," he said. "Its been a reasoned attempt to protect their stockholders."

Incumbent telecommunications providers—wireless and wireline companies alike—have questioned whether the government should be subsidizing a Wi-Fi project of this scope, and that telecom development should be left to the private sector.

"We do not think muni projects like this are a good idea," Steve Titch, a senior fellow for telecom policy at the Heartland Institute, a think tank based in Chicago, told Ziff-Davis Internet.

/zimages/4/28571.gifPhillys Wi-Fi contract may be a lifeline for EarthLink. Click here to read more.

The Wi-Fi deployment in Philadelphia—the fifth-largest city in the U.S.—is slated for completion by the end of 2006, and EarthLink, the ISP based in Atlanta, is planning to deploy a mesh network to cover the city, all 135 square miles of it.

"Wireless Philadelphia represents an important milestone in the deployment of wireless broadband," said Garry Betty, the president and chief executive officer of EarthLink, in a statement.

The project will provide high-speed, wireless access to Philadelphians, as well as the ability to "stay connected," no matter where they are in the city, his statement said.

The company has agreed in principle to the terms of the contract—but is going to finalize it over the next two months. EarthLink was competing against Hewlett-Packard Co. for the contract.

There has been active opposition to the contract being awarded—even from a member of the Philadelphia City Council, and from the Pennsylvania legislature.

It is quite unlikely that municipal Wi-Fi networks can provide coverage even remotely comparable to that which is offered by established telecom players, according to Jonathan Blum, an independent IT analyst.

"Just try an account for a while, and you will see the issues," Blum said. "Quality of service is lower than with cell phones, hot spots are not ubiquitous, nodes can get easily overcrowded in busy areas, and that does not even touch on service, privacy and 911," Blum said.

Municipal Wi-Fi is a novelty somewhat akin to the satellite view maps that are online, Blum said. "Way cool, but not that big a deal," he said.

Another analyst, Phil Redman, of Gartner Research Inc., said he thinks municipal Wi-Fi networks will be a contentious issue for years to come.

"This most likely could be contested if it uses resources—mainly network bandwidth on the back end—of the city," Redman said.

"Many cities will get around this by keeping the Wi-Fi network off the city resources, except for AP locations, rights of way, etc."

Its not likely that cities will be able to make a profit with Wi-Fi services, and should best view them as a free service offering, akin to borrowing books at the public library, Redman said.

"Cities that are looking to earn a profit or subsidize their own networks are going to have problems, as operational issues and bandwidth costs will make it a difficult venture," Redman said.

"Even companies with a networking focus, like T-Mobile or Wayport are still struggling to earn a profit with Wi-Fi," he said.

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