EarthLink selected for Philadelphia Wi-Fi network

The city of Philadelphia has selected EarthLink Inc. to deploy a citywide wireless broadband network, the largest municipal Wi-Fi network in the U.S., the company announced Tuesday.

The Wi-Fi deployment in the U.S.’ fifth largest city is expected to be finished by the fourth quarter of 2006, EarthLink said. EarthLink, a large Atlanta-based Internet service provider, will deploy a mesh Wi-Fi network covering 135 square miles (349 square kilometers).

Under the terms of the EarthLink proposal, no city or taxpayer dollars will be used to fund the project. EarthLink will finance, build and manage the wireless network, and share revenue with the city’s Wireless Philadelphia initiative.

The infrastructure portion of the contract totals about US$10 million, said Dianah Neff, the city’s chief information officer and acting chairwoman of Wireless Philadelphia, a nonprofit group set up by the city. EarthLink’s proposal was one of 12 the city received from vendors, she said.

EarthLink’s proposal to pay for the cost of building the network was among the major reasons the city selected the provider, Neff said. The city’s request for proposals did not require that the Wi-Fi vendor pay for the cost of building the network; the city had considering using bonds or private funding to allow Wireless Philadelphia to pay for construction, she said.

Philadelphia’s plan to build a citywide Wi-Fi network has met criticism from Verizon Communications Inc., which offers DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) and wireless broadband service to the Philadelphia area. Verizon and other incumbent telecommunications carriers have questioned whether tax dollars should fund Internet services in competition with private companies and if cities understand the long-term costs of maintaining Wi-Fi networks.

EarthLink’s funding proposal addresses those criticisms, Neff said. “We have believed from the beginning that the nonprofit could take on the [funding] risk,” she said. “EarthLink stepping up and offering to fund this at their risk … was very important to us.”

Two other bidders proposed alternative funding arrangements, Neff said.

EarthLink’s proposal also best matched Wireless Philadelphia’s goals of strengthening the city’s economy and improving its neighborhoods by providing citywide broadband access, Neff said.

A Verizon spokesman didn’t comment directly on the city’s choice of EarthLink. Verizon didn’t file a proposal because the city’s requirements “do not fit out current business model,” said Brian Blevins, Verizon’s director of external communications. Verizon offers DSL and its wireless EV-DO (evolution-data optimized) product in the Philadelphia area, and it has begun deploying a fiber-to-the-premises network in southeastern Pennsylvania, Blevins noted.

EarthLink and the city have reached agreement on the major terms of the contract and are working to complete the agreement within 60 days, Donald Berryman, president of EarthLink Municipal Networks, said in the press release. EarthLink will first build a 15-square-mile Wi-Fi network to test the equipment and service, he said.

“Wireless Philadelphia represents an important milestone in the deployment of wireless broadband in the United States on such a wide scale,” Garry Betty, EarthLink’s president and chief executive officer, said in a statement. “It provides a competitive alternative to high-speed Internet offerings and gives many Internet users the ability to stay connected, no matter where they are in the city.”

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