Earthlink today announced that they are discontinuing their Philadelphia muni-wireless network. Apparently, the company has been trying to work with the city and Wireless Philadelphia (the non-profit formed by the city originally to manage the Wi-Fi network) to transition the wireless network assets and maintain its operation.
Those discussions have fallen apart, and now Earthlink has notified customers that its decomissioning the network entirely, and removing all of the equipment.
So the poster-child of Muni-wireless is now back at square one.
Josh Breitbart has good coverage about the happenings in Philadelphia, and through New America Foundation released an excellent report on the subject, “The Philadelphia Story: Learning from a Municipal Wireless Pioneer”.
What does this say about muni-wireless in general?
Certainly, Philadelphians will need to find alternative broadband options, and the free public-space hotspots will be going away, taking away a valuable public resource for the city.
But the single most important lesson from this experience is that single-source solutions for muni-networks are a bad idea. If Wireless Philadelphia followed their founding purpose instead of being tempted into a devil’s bargain with Earthlink to hand over the entirety of the network to the company, the story today would be very different. Wireless Philadelphia, which would have owned the network and contracted out its building and operations, would merely need to find a new partner to take over those roles. The city’s network would continue on, and users would have experienced few, if any, hiccups in service.
Instead, the network will now be disassembled and all of the work done over the past few years by the non-profit was for naught. People currently using the network (including a number of low-income families) will be left without a broadband connection, and Wireless Philadelphia will have to go back to the drawing board and come up with an alternative solution for bridging the digital divide, a process that will likely take months, if not years.
Contrast Philadelphia with Boston’s approach. In an insightful report, the Boston Wireless Task Force sketched out a plan for creating 2 competitive marketplaces that will drive the creation of the city-wide muni-wireless network. On one side, a number of infrastructure providers will all provide last mile networks, each within a different part of the city. Those networks will all wind up funnelling thorugh an network exchange managed by the Wireless Boston non-profit. On the other side, ISPs (and any other organization) will be able to purchase transport on the last-mile wireless network at competitive prices, and provide customers with a choice of companies from which to purchase retail wireless ISP service. Enabling all of this interconnectivity are standards-based hardware and software interfaces, and common routing and management interfaces.
In Boston, if an infrastructure provider exists the business, another company can step in an take over the operations of that part of the network–one that is likely already providing service in another part of the city. If an ISP decides to stop reselling the wireless network, there will be other ISPs who can provide service.
Looking back, its hard to miss the fact that Philadelphia chose the worst path. They had the option, early on, of taking a more Boston-like approach, but instead opted for a short term political win at the expense of a lasting solution. In reality, Philadelphia’s muni-wireless network, if they choose to rebuild it, will likely cost even more than it would have if they took a more progressive approach from the beginning. And its not lost on anyone that Philadelphia’s Wireless Task Force recommended a more competitive and holistic approach similar to (though different in certain ways) Wireless Boston’s current approach.