Philly Won't Fight to Save Wi-Fi Network

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The city of Philadelphia is moving on after its brief municipal Wi-Fi relationship with EarthLink, no longer trying to find a way to keep the network up and running.

EarthLink announced on Tuesday that it will shut down the network and remove the approximately 4,300 access nodes spread across Philadelphia. It said the decision followed months of negotiations with the city and nonprofit organizations aimed at handing over the US$17 million network for free so it could keep running. EarthLink started pulling out of the municipal Wi-Fi business last year.

The city government isn't talking to EarthLink or doing anything else to save the network, a spokesman for Mayor Michael Nutter said Wednesday. This was in contrast to a statement on Tuesday by Wireless Philadelphia, a group that provides low-cost access to the network for disadvantaged residents, that said the group and the city were together trying to find ways to preserve the network.

"Our goal at this point ... is to facilitate an orderly termination of the relationship and to protect the city's interests in the process," spokesman Douglas Oliver said.

"We don't know what tomorrow holds. We don't know what other opportunities could potentially exist," Oliver added, but he said the city isn't involved in any discussions about saving the network.

To start with, the city will focus on a Complaint for Declaratory Judgment that EarthLink filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court, Oliver said. EarthLink said it wants the court to affirm its rights to take down the network and to a $1 million limit on its liability.

Philadelphia chose EarthLink in 2005 to build a citywide Wi-Fi network that would help ensure residents and businesses got broadband Internet access, especially in poor neighborhoods. EarthLink tried to install and run the network at its own cost and build a profitable business based on selling subscriptions, but this never paid off in Philadelphia or in other cities. The ailing service provider gave back networks to some cities but was unable to reach a deal with Philadelphia and its partners. All the parties were talking until EarthLink made its announcement, Oliver said.

"No one was willing to accept the wireless network and the liability that goes with it, both financially and operationally," Oliver said.

The discussions were complex and difficult because of the many parties involved, he said. In addition to EarthLink and the city, the discussions involved Wireless Philadelphia and OneCommunity, a nonprofit based in Akron, Ohio, that helps communities set up long-term Internet access strategies.

"Contrary to reports, this initiative is far from dead," Wireless Philadelphia said in a statement on Wednesday. "We applaud and thank the Nutter administration for its aggressive efforts to seek solutions and encourage all parties to continue working together to assure a positive future for this groundbreaking Philadelphia first."

OneCommunity President and CEO Scot Rourke wouldn't comment on the negotiations, but said his group had become more involved in Philadelphia last month after setting up the Knight Center of Digital Excellence with a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The center is designed to address universal access issues in cities including Philadelphia. Rourke said he wishes OneCommunity could have been more involved with the Philadelphia network earlier.

"We continue to be supportive in any way that we can, and have dedicated resources to advise communities like Philadelphia," Rourke said.

Without going into details, city spokesman Oliver said there clearly were maintenance and upgrading challenges that came with the free infrastructure. "How many times has someone not taken $17 million worth of something without there being a pretty good reason?" he said.

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