Philadelphia project shows government involvement in new light

Should local governments be in the business of providing broadband? The city of Philadelphia thinks so and is building a wireless open access network

EarthLink has won approval from a non-profit group to create a wireless mesh net covering Philadelphia’s 135 square miles.

The project is among the biggest so far announced, and is furthest along, with a completion date of late 2006. For EarthLink, which cut its teeth on offering dial-up internet service over leased cable and telephone lines, the win represents a major step toward creating its own broadband networks using alternative technologies, such as 802.11 mesh wireless nets and fixed wireless backhaul links.

“We’ve been looking at alternative technologies for three or four years,” says Cole Reinwand, director of next generation broadband for EarthLink and the main author of EarthLink’s winning bid for the Philadelphia project. But the ISP has been frustrated trying to forge leasing arrangements with cable vendors for nationwide coverage and by telco wholesale charges that differ little from retail prices.

Currently, EarthLink claims 5.4 million customers, of whom 1.5 million use broadband based on a mix of technologies.

Those numbers should increase dramatically if the Philadelphia network delivers as promised. A non-profit group called Wireless Philadelphia was created by the city to lead the project. The group is currently negotiating the final details of the contract.

EarthLink has announced two partners so far. Tropos will provide the wireless LAN-based mesh network nodes. The mesh will be the entry point for residential users and for many business users, too. EarthLink is guaranteeing 1Mbit/s throughput uploading and downloading over the mesh. The monthly fee for most users will be US$20 (NZ$28) or less, says Reinwand.

The second partner is Motorola, which will supply its Canopy fixed wireless radios to provide higher-­performance service to business users and to create a wireless backhaul linking the mesh with the internet. A separate “T-1 Alternative” service will be available to business users with a guaranteed 1.5Mbit/s two-way connection.

Wireless Philadelphia will also include free internet surfing in selected public areas of the city and fee-based guest access privileges available at hourly or daily rates. Finally, EarthLink will create secure wireless access for the municipal government and city workers, including public safety staff.

EarthLink is talking with software vendors about additional components and with installation companies who will deploy the net. The first phase is a 15-square-mile pilot network to be created in the next three to six months. Following an assessment by Wireless Philadelphia, EarthLink will roll out the rest of the net, which will be completed in the fourth quarter of 2006.

Although city officials are hailing the deal as an innovative public-private partnership, the basic arrangement is very similar to a cable franchise. EarthLink becomes the exclusive network infrastructure provider, building and owning the net.

A key consideration for Wireless Philadelphia was EarthLink’s offer, just like a cable company, to foot the bill for the entire build-out, estimated to cost between US$10 million to US$15 million.

One condition of the contract is that EarthLink grants access to the infrastructure to other service providers.

“This is going to be an open-access network,” says Reinwand. “Any ISP that wants to sell services over the net will be allowed to — at reasonable rates.” He says EarthLink and Wireless Philadelphia have worked some “rate parameters” that will foster competition.

The city will grant EarthLink rights to mount radios on municipal light poles and buildings. The city has also agreed to be the “anchor tenant” for the network, and has promised to replace up to 50% of its current T-1 leased lines with EarthLink fixed wireless links. Finally, “we expect the city to endorse and help us sell this [net] to citizens,” Reinwand says.

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