PHILADELPHIA – The idea seems simple enough. Hang a bunch of wireless routers from city lamp poles, hook them up to the city’s power supply and some sort of backhaul to the Internet and voila, instant mobile broadband access for the masses.
Not so fast.
A quick search through the RCR Wireless News archives will reveal that at one point in time municipal Wi-Fi services were highly thought of ways to expand the reach of mobile broadband services to communities. However, that same search will also show that in nearly all instances, those efforts proved futile.
A prime example of this futility is Philadelphia, where despite countless efforts to manage a muni Wi-Fi network, the city is still without a functioning service. What began in 2004 as an idea by the city to bring mobile broadband access to its citizens, has been reduced to a couple thousand stranded nodes.
During a recent visit to the city as part of the RCR Wireless New Mobile Broadband Tour, we visited with current Philadelphia City Councilman-at-Large Bill Green, who explained what happened to the network and why there is still hope it could return.
Green noted that Philadelphia’s muni Wi-Fi experiment began in early 2004 when then mayor John Street announced an initiative to bring mobile broadband access to the city. Those plans ramped up quickly as the city’s initial plans to operate the network itself were pushed aside by a deal struck with Earthlink Inc. in 2005 to both build and operate the network.
Earthlink’s plans were to build a 15-square-mile “proof-of-concept” network, with the entire 135-square-mile citywide system expected to be up and running by late 2007.
The contract called for EarthLink to provide the infrastructure for the project that would have cost the city $20 million if it had conducted the build out itself. In addition to financing, building and managing the wireless network, EarthLink agreed to provide Wireless Philadelphia with revenue-sharing fees to help support the Wireless Philadelphia Non-Profit Corp.
For its investment, EarthLink was to provide the city government, schools and other entities with free wireless Internet access while charging about $20 per month for private access. The project also included a $10-per-month fee for about 25,000 low-income households. The company said it expected the network to turn a profit by the end of its second year at which point it would have between 50,000 and 80,000 subscribers.
The deal with Earthlink was seen as placating companies in the business of providing mobile broadband services that were not keen on trying to compete with a city-owned operation. Green noted that once the Wireless Philadelphia initiative was announced, a number of incumbent broadband providers began to lower their pricing structure, which also took a bite out of the city’s plans.
The Earthlink-deployed network initially launched in early 2005, though plans for broader coverage were quickly pushed back from 2006 to 2007 and finally to 2008. Before that build out could be completed, Earthlink, which had spent $27 million building and operating the network, had a change of heart in its muni Wi-Fi plans and decided to sell off its assets.
After failing to find a buyer for the network, Earthlink shuttered the operation and handed the assets over to the city. The city in turn found a private investor who picked up those network assets for a couple million in hopes of finding additional investors that would allow the network to be re-launched.
However, those efforts happened to coincide with the nation’s economy hitting the skids in early 2008, which left the investors unable to find the needed financial resources to fund the service. The network has since sat unused.
Before being shut down, Philadelphia’s muni Wi-Fi network had grown to 29 “high” sites and a total of 4,500 nodes spread throughout the city. Green noted that those sites are still around and called them “valuable assets,” that the city hopes to take advantage of at some point.
Green noted that the initial Wireless Philadelphia plans were flawed from the beginning as the initial network build involved coverage in areas where customers did not have the financial resources to actually pay for the service. This left Earthlink with a cash flow problem from the get go.
Further impacting the city’s plans for the network was the loss of CIO Dianah Neff, who spearheaded the Wireless Philadelphia project. Neff left her position in 2006 to join Civitium, which was awarded a $300,000 consulting contract by Neff with Wireless Philadelphia. The city has since gone through several CIOs as well as a new administration, and is currently searching for someone to fill the CIO position.
Despite the troubles, Green said the city still has hopes for the muni Wi-Fi network.
“The city recognized rightly, in my view, that this was a valuable asset,” Green said, noting the city was planning on spending about $15 million to upgrade the network. Those plans are now awaiting leadership from a new CIO.
While the Wireless Philadelphia project remains in limbo, other cities are moving forward. Oklahoma City in 2008 tuned on a city-owned muni Wi-Fi network that covered 95% of the city’s core, or more than 555 square miles. The network took two years to build at the cost of $5 million and is being used exclusively for city services.
Other municipalities have also moved forward with the operation of their own citywide Wi-Fi networks, showing that while there are still challenges for the model, there are ways to make such services successful.