EarthLink will attempt to make the City of Brotherly Love the city of brotherly wireless access as well, with a deal to cover America’s fifth largest city with WiFi mesh connectivity over 135 square miles, the largest municipal wireless rollout to date.
The undertaking, described as a lifesaver for EarthLink by industry analysts, comes as similar Internet providers, local exchange, wireless, cable carriers and others compete for similar city-wide wireless efforts, which have heated up for places such as San Francisco.
Arranged between EarthLink and the city’s Wireless Philadelphia nonprofit, the development will deliver wide-scale wireless coverage via WiFi mesh network, a patchwork of WiFi hotspots that will be financed, built and managed by EarthLink, which will share revenue with Wireless Philadelphia.
“The two parties have reached agreement on the major business terms of the contract and are working to complete a definitive agreement within the next 60 days,” read a statement from EarthLink Municipal Networks president Donald Berryman. “Initially, we will construct a 15-square-mile proof of concept area, and upon completion of the testing phase, Wireless Philadelphia and EarthLink will begin building out the remainder of the city’s wireless network.”
Both parties looked to quell the controversy around municipal support and taxpayer funding of city-wide wireless access — which has mirrored debate over city financing for sports stadiums — by indicating “no city or taxpayer dollars will be used to fund the project.”
EarthLink will pay for construction and management of the network, which is expected to be fully operational throughout the city by the fourth quarter of next year. The system will offer: low-cost, high-speed Internet access; open access for competing providers; roaming capabilities for hotspot providers; free access in some public places; T-1 alternative small business connectivity; and daily and weekly access for regular users and visitors.
“Wireless Philadelphia represents an important milestone in the deployment of wireless broadband in the United States on such a wide scale,” read a statement from EarthLink president and chief executive officer Garry Betty.
Too Soon for Solution?
DataComm President Ira Brodsky told TechNewsWorld that, although the arrangement dodges the issues of public funding for wireless cities, it is still subject to criticism over the choice of just one company for such a large investment.
“The way it should be handled is to identify the rights of way and find a way where multiple players could compete for multiple spots,” he said.
Brodsky also indicated that, while WiFi, or the 802.11 wireless technology currently popular among consumers and companies, is a workable solution for today, it may become less and less attractive as other wireless technologies — such as Verizon’s EV-DO or the longer-range Wi-Max — mature and improve.
And, while Brodsky said the deal should allow actual use of the wireless solution soon, the convergence of other wireless uses and applications — voice handsets, voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), data and more — should also be considered.
“This technology is inexpensive and relatively easy to install, especially if you’re working with a city and have access to street lamps, power, etcetera,” he said. “It really shouldn’t take very long.”
‘Round Peg in Square Hole’
Ovum Vice President of wireless telecoms Roger Entner told TechNewsWorld that the project is significant for EarthLink, but nevertheless highlights the difficulty of rolling out city-wide wireless access right now.
“Really, they’re trying to put a round peg in a square hole,” Entner said. “It works, but it’s not the most elegant solution. It works. It’s cheap. The problem is, right now, for what they do, there’s not really an alternative.”
Entner said the deal prevents EarthLink from dying along with its dial-up Internet business, but wireless carriers — Verizon, Sprint, Cingular — are looking to beat WiFi services like EarthLink’s with speed.
“In the end, what Verizon I think realized is, it all comes down to speed, and WiFi, in the end, is a cable replacement. For all intents and purposes, WiFi will lose by speed.”