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.