After EarthLink abandoned a citywide Wi-Fi project for Philadelphia after only 6,000 customers signed up for the $20/mo. service. Now local investors Derek Pew of Boathouse Communications and Mark Rupp, a former Verizon executive, are planning to take over the network, which will be free and ad-supported. When first announced, the project was on of the largest Wi-Fi buildouts proposed. But after being completed, few users signed up because it was slow, didn't reach far into the city's signature row houses if at all, and was not much cheaper than adding Internet to your cable or phone connection. Earthlink had previously attempted to hand the network off an Ohio-based non-profit. But Wi-Fi was never a particularly good technology for these projects, and it's high time to abandon the pipe dream.
Philadelphia was a particularly interesting choice because it's the corporate home of Comcast. Here in San Francisco, the plan to build a citywide wireless network was initially opposed by the telco giant, along with AT&T, as the two companies feared it threatened their duopoly. Turned out they had little to be afraid of — between Comcast's influence in City Hall and villainously-coiffed God-mayor Gavin Newsom's inability to understand the political process beyond publicity, the combined powers of Google and Earthlink couldn't get anything done (and publicly mocking political opposition certainly didn't help).
Wi-Fi is simply bad technology for large-scale wireless connectivity. The microwave spectrum the technology uses can't cover large distances omni-directionally, and everything from humidity to trees interrupt the signal. And those problems are compounded by the difficulty in building a network infrastructure to feed all those access points with enough bandwidth to satsify thousands of users at any given time. Again, expanding fiber optic networks makes much more sense, because a bunch of wireless routers in a mesh network does you no good unless they can actually connect to an Internet backbone at dozens if not hundreds of points.
Having lived in the Bay Area since the turn of the century, I've actually noticed a decrease in Wi-Fi availability, mostly thanks to individuals who've started to lock down their access points and businesses that have tired of freeloaders. By the time Philadelphia and San Francisco were busy trying to build out citywide systems, the 802.11n Wi-Fi standard was already getting old, while cell network provides were introducing 3G data connections. Politics doomed such projects from the start, and now obsolescence will finish them.
What was once the technological pride of Phildelphia is now a failed dream on its last legs. Meanwhile, I can't get a fiber optic connection if I wanted one (and I do, desperately). Had we been listening to San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano instead of mayor Newsom years ago, maybe San Franciscans would be getting the true broadband speeds countries in Asia and Europe enjoy. (Photo by Bob Jagendorf)