What now for Wireless Philadelphia?

It is now common knowledge that EarthLink has failed to live up to its agreement to build a citywide wireless network for the people of Philadelphia. Fortunately, the Network Agreement gives Wireless Philadelphia various mechanisms to hold the Atlanta-based corporation accountable. For example, WP can declare a “Dark Day” for the system if there is significant outage and compel EarthLink to remedy the situation. Yet WP has not exercised any of these provisions, even though these are clearly dark days for Wireless Philadelphia.

In December, Philadelphia Chief Information Officer Terry Phillis and Wireless Philadelphia Chief Executive Officer went before City Council and assured the members that EarthLink was still hard at work building out the wireless network throughout the city. They promised EarthLink would resolve all of its subscribers’ problems. It is now clear the information they provided was false.

In January, Mr. Phillis told Computerworld that as early as November when EarthLink said it was considering “strategic alternatives” for its municipal wireless division, he understood that “Wi-Fi is no longer in their strategic initiatives, and they wouldn’t make that statement if they were continuing here.”

EarthLink recently affirmed that the project is up for sale. In November, they valued their entire municipal division at $40 million. In a recent filing, they announced losses of $32 million just in the last quarter of 2007. Plus they are hemorrhaging what few subscribers they have. Their primary assets, the thousands of wireless routers on light poles throughout Philadelphia, function poorly and are hard to upgrade. Overall, the Philadelphia network is not an attractive product. Moreover, any buyer would need approval from City Council, where there is little love lost for EarthLink.

Yet the project’s goals – bridging the digital divide, stimulating the local economy, and increasing the efficiency of local government – remain as critical as ever. And federal and state governments still offer more roadblocks than assistance. Unfortunately, the current plan locks the city into a single solution to all of these problems: the stalled, malfunctioning EarthLink network.

Wireless Philadelphia and Mayor Michael Nutter should not wait for a proposal from EarthLink. Neither should the people who this project was originally intended to serve. “We still believe in the vision of an entire city connected,” says Todd Wolfson of the Media Mobilizing Project, which is training new immigrants to make and distribute videos over the wireless network. “But it is going to require a holistic plan that goes beyond the now-tarnished silver bullet offered by former CIO Dianah Neff.”

Greg Goldman recently told The Bulletin, “There are creative ways to re-envision the model.” It is hard to guess what that could mean, but he makes clear that the City will not step in to take over the network.

With finding a buyer unlikely and municipal ownership out of the question, the best hope is that EarthLink will donate the system to a local nonprofit. It is the only option that City Council would look on favorably and the company’s only chance to garner positive publicity. The tax write-off would probably do as much for EarthLink’s bottom line as a fire sale would.

The challenge for this option is that no single organization in Philadelphia has the capacity for such an undertaking or could marshal enough community support. Wireless Philadelphia, which was originally founded to own the network and is supposed to be managing it, is mired in politics and has no technical expertise. To go forward, Philadelphia’s many community technology organizations should come together in shared ownership of the network. Wireless Philadelphia, which has done valuable work in identifying and partnering with some of these groups, could be the vehicle for this, though it would need to be completely restructured.

However the project proceeds, the men who assured City Council in December that everything was on track now lack credibility. Terry Phillis is a holdover from the previous administration, a sad sign that Mayor Nutter is content with the status quo on this issue. Greg Goldman has been apologizing for EarthLink for the past year despite obvious warning signs that the company was neglecting its obligations to the people of Philadelphia. With a new beginning on the horizon, the project needs new leadership. If we act now, we can brighten these dark days for Wireless Philadelphia.

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5 Comments

  1. Joshua Breitbart is a clever professional writer from New York and he is good at getting his articles picked up and placed. He presents himself as an impartial analyst of Wireless Philadelphia and other municipal wireless projects around the country. But time and time again, what he presents as analysis is simply a point of view—one that is out of synch with the realities of our project and serves to divert our attention from what the Wireless Philadelphia Initiative has achieved, divide us against each other and make it more difficult for us to take the Initiative to the next level.

    Stripping it all away, the Wireless Philadelphia Initiative has scored two major accomplishments that are the envy of every other major city in the US. At 80% complete we have by far the largest wireless network in the United States (Wired Magazine, March 2008) and we have built the most far reaching digital inclusion program in urban America in partnership with a growing number of community organizations, funders and supporters (MuniWireless.com).

    Josh and some of his colleagues continue to criticize Wireless Philadelphia for not being publicly owned. Okay, whatever. That would be great from an ideological point of view. The fact is that a publicly owned network was not a real option in 2005, nor is it a real option now. (Glenn Fleishman’s detailed dismissal of Josh’s assertions bears revisiting: http://wifinetnews.com/archives/008085.html) If we had gone that route we would have no network in Philadelphia, and certainly not the nation’s largest. We now have the opportunity to build on this valuable asset.

    What is needed now is for everyone to take a deep breath. We have a new administration that is familiarizing itself with the Initiative; EarthLink has decided to sell and that is simply going to take some time. Empty calls for Wireless Philadelphia to “hold EarthLink’s feet to the fire” may make some people feel better, but they mean little in the context of the actual contract (published on our website at http://www.wirelessphiladelphia.org/documents/Network_Agreement_for_PDF.pdf), which is by all reasonable accounts favorable to the City and the citizens of Philadelphia.

    We have and continue to hold EarthLink to its obligations within the terms of the Network Agreement. I have never promised anything on behalf of EarthLink; rather, I have always been open and honest with everyone given the best information I have. The contract gives EarthLink a fairly broad timeframe to complete the sale. No sale can go forward without prior written consent from WP and the City, and we will exhaustively vet any provider presented to us. From my perspective this sale can’t happen soon enough, so we can focus fully on the important work of bringing necessary technology to low wealth families across Philadelphia.

    In the meantime, WP is working closely with the new administration, including the new City Solicitor, and we are seeking to identify a new business and operational model that involves both more local involvement and responsibility combined with support from key national foundations and nonprofits who recognize what all of us in Philadelphia have achieved and are dedicated to helping us build to the next level.

  2. Glenn Strachan said

    I found this posted on another site which is quite interesting related to the Philly story:

    Philadelphia pays consultant $200,000 for Wi-Fi work
    By Jeff Shields

    Inquirer Staff Writer

    As it turns out, Wireless Philadelphia, the supposedly cost-free
    solution to the city’s digital divide, is not completely without costs,
    the city’s chief information officer said yesterday.

    Responding to questions from City Councilman Frank Rizzo during a budget
    hearing yesterday, Terry M. Phillis, the city’s CIO, acknowledged that
    he was paying a consultant $200,000 this year as his “technical project
    manager.”

    Although Mayor John F. Street had promised that EarthLink would build
    Wireless Philadelphia at no cost to the city, officials had always
    anticipated that someone from the city would have to oversee the
    project, Phillis said.

    The project manager is Strategic Staffing, a consultant company with
    branches around the country. The company’s representative in
    Philadelphia is Varinia Robinson, who was first contracted in 2004 as an
    assistant to Dianah Neff, then the city’s CIO.

    The city paid Strategic Staffing $128,000 in fiscal year 2005, $4,000 in
    FY 2006 (the rest paid for by Wireless Philadelphia), and $188,000 in FY
    2007. In FY 2008, which ends June 30, the company will be paid $200,000.
    It was unclear yesterday what the company’s role would be after that.

    “This is the cost for managing this, not for building it. I know this is
    splitting hairs,” Phillis said in an interview. “Doesn’t it make sense
    that you have someone to manage the project?”

    Wireless Philadelphia is about 70 percent built – the city’s Northeast
    and Northwest remain uncovered – but EarthLink has announced plans to
    sell its municipal Wi-Fi business.

    Phillis said the project must be completed by November or EarthLink
    would be in default of its contract.

  3. WiFi Gadfly said

    What the project manager is making is nothing compared to the $300K that Civitium made: http://www.neowin.net/forum/lofiversion/index.php/t610941.html

    This means that the City spent $500K on a network that was supposed to cost them nothing. Think of all the wireless equipment that Philly could have bought for this money 🙂

  4. Bob Shaffer in the great N/E said

    Northeast Philly is dissed again. The wireless map stops just four blocks from my house. Just wait, we’re told. Meanwhile I’m paying $29 per month for Verizon DSL. By the time the new buyer takes over from Earthlink, the Wifi price will blow past what I’m paying for DSL.

    And so it goes…….

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    A Nationwide Ultra High Speed Internet with an upload and download of a T1 or T3. with a First Class IP Teephony for less than thirty dollars a month. Will you still need a cellular Phone. your choice but you will never have to pay thirty dollars or more for a cell plan. http://www.eastwestwifi.com There will be some goodies including with the service and more Hitech Products and services will be availabe after the Wifi Launch.

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