Former EarthLink City Wi-Fi Comes Down to Earth
As two U.S. cities take over networks that were built out by EarthLink, they are putting the "municipal" back in municipal Wi-Fi.
Corpus Christi, Texas, and Milpitas, California, each voted on Tuesday to take back networks that EarthLink built or expanded and later sought to unload. The struggling Internet service provider ran into trouble trying to build Wi-Fi systems at no cost to cities and make its investment back through subscriptions.
Now both cities are giving up on commercial service and returning the focus to government applications and free public hotspots. The moves reflect a more cautious approach to municipal wireless that has been advocated by some industry observers.
Corpus Christi built its network initially for automated meter reading, then in March 2007 sold it to EarthLink, which expanded the system to serve nongovernment users. EarthLink sold monthly subscriptions to residents and short-term daily plans to consumers for use in public places, such as the city's airport.
Once it takes over the expanded network, the city will drop subscription service and dedicate the network to its own uses, said John Sendejar, acting general manager of the wireless project at the city. Those will include surveillance, restaurant inspections and free access in public hotspots. The city will make access at the airport free and also offer free service all around its marina for tenants there, he said. Some radios in residential areas will be moved to better serve the new uses.
"It has still a lot of possibilities that have been unexplored," Sendejar said.
With the network now in its hands, the city expects its annual maintenance costs for the infrastructure, now about US$250,000, to grow to $300,000. That's well worth the benefits, he said. "We feel that we got an excellent investment back," Sendejar said.
Milpitas began its own small Wi-Fi system in 2003, but EarthLink built a network from scratch after making a deal with the city in 2006. EarthLink put in 311 access points, covering a majority of the city's residential and commercial area, said Milpitas Information Services Director Bill Marion. The city's original 60-node network, still in operation, will eventually be merged with the former EarthLink system, he added.
Like Corpus Christi, Milpitas will drop consumer subscriptions but provide free access in popular public places around the city. Milpitas has also used the network for a variety of city functions, such as building inspections and police work, on a secured portion of the network. Using existing crews to maintain the infrastructure, Marion doesn't expect any special ongoing costs other than about $700 per year for electricity. The dalliance with EarthLink worked out well, he said.
"We wouldn't have had the resources to build out the network to the extent that EarthLink did," Marion said. The city may even look to make a deal with another commercial service provider for residential service in the future, since that partner wouldn't bear the cost of building the network, he said.
The meltdown of EarthLink's free-network business was a stark reminder that cities have to play a role in municipal Wi-Fi projects, either as the owner or as an anchor tenant, industry analysts said.
"The city has to make some kind of financial contribution," said Esme Vos, founder of industry blog MuniWireless.com.
There is a new wave of successful networks coming together, including in Minneapolis and Santa Monica, California, according to independent municipal network analyst Craig Settles. Some were built by private service providers and some by government, but they all have a financial foundation apart from trying to sell services to individuals, he said. That can be a government cost savings, an operator's contract to sell services to the city, or a variety of public and private anchor tenants.
"The general consumer has clouded a lot of the discussion over the last couple of years," Settles said. It turns out that the go-anywhere Internet access that generated so much consumer attention to municipal Wi-Fi is best thought of as a side benefit, he said.