Philadelphia plans to buy its Wi-Fi network

The city hopes to buy the system, originally built by EarthLink, for $2 million

The city of Philadelphia plans to buy a controversial Wi-Fi network that was built by EarthLink in 2006 but sold only two years later as the struggling ISP pulled out of the municipal wireless business.

The Philadelphia network was conceived in the middle of this decade with the vision of blanketing the city with wireless Internet access. The city planned the network in part to make sure low-income residents would have some form of Internet access. Many other U.S. cities followed Philadelphia's lead with similar plans, which EarthLink offered to carry out, but soon the ISP pulled out of the business. The Philadelphia network, which covered about 75 percent of the city, was saved from demolition in 2008 when EarthLink sold it to Network Acquisition Co. (NAC), a local company.

Pending city council approval, Philadelphia will buy the network for US$2 million and primarily use it for city operations, said city spokesman Douglas Oliver. Over the next five years, the city would invest about $17 million to add public-safety radios to the infrastructure and finish building it out to cover the whole city. By that time, the investments will have more than paid off in savings from more efficient city operations, said Chief Technology Officer Allan Frank. For example, workers can be more productive by filing reports from the field instead of going back to the office.

Free public Internet access will be available in some public spaces, and eventually, the city may bring in revenue through partnerships with government agencies and educational institutions, Oliver said. But the plan to use Wi-Fi to democratize the Internet has gone by the wayside.

"The digital divide is still real, and it is still something that needs to be addressed. Perhaps that was not the model to address it, but it makes the cause no less worthy," Oliver said.

NAC will be selling the network to Philadelphia for about the same price it paid to EarthLink. To pay for it, the city will tap into a capital fund for public safety as well as a federal Department of Homeland Security grant for installing security cameras around the city. Those cameras will be connected via Wi-Fi. Building a similar network from scratch would cost about $30 million, the city estimated.

Philadelphia is probably making a good investment, according to Craig Settles, an independent municipal networking analyst who has written a book about the city's Wi-Fi odyssey. Cities can save a lot of money by equipping field employees with Wi-Fi, as well as applying the network to new technologies, such as electronic parking meters. Those meters cost less to operate because there is no cash to handle, and they can increase revenue by detecting meter violations as soon as they occur, he said.

Municipal Wi-Fi plans for places such as San Francisco, Chicago and Silicon Valley generated excitement partly because of the promise of access to Wi-Fi anywhere, in some cases for free. At companies such as EarthLink, the idea of paid or ad-supported Wi-Fi for consumers became a distraction from the viable business model of city services, Settles said.

"It was the reason that those networks failed, because it became the tail that wagged the dog," Settles said. The cost was high for cities that bought into that dream. "Most cities had no financial investment, but they lost time and they lost political equity," he said.

Settles pointed to Houston, Oklahoma City, Minneapolis, and Providence, Rhode Island, as cities that have had success with municipal Wi-Fi. Only one of those networks, in Minneapolis, is used for paid consumer Internet access, he said.

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