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Citywide Wi-Fi plan is on hold

The provider is taking time to revisit business plans.

By PAUL SWIDER, Times Staff Writer
Published August 19, 2007


A proposed citywide wireless Internet service is on hold while Earthlink, the city's chosen provider, rethinks its Wi-Fi business strategy.

"They've asked that we give them until fall, and they'll have their game plan together," said Muslim Gadiwalla, the city's chief technology officer. "Other cities are in the same boat, including Atlanta," where Earthlink is based.

Earthlink representatives would not comment on the company's plans or its negotiations with the city, but numerous media reports say the company and others like it are struggling with the idea of building citywide networks for free. The technology to provide wireless Internet access is showing uneven service and costing more, so companies like Earthlink are asking cities to sign on as subscribers, not just hoping residents and advertisers will do so.

"They want an anchor tenant" to help pay the bills, Gadiwalla said. "We told them after the network is up and running we'd look at it, but we don't have 2,000 people on the street with laptops."

The city chose Earthlink this year after a competition to cover the city's 60 square miles. The company won over city staff members by touting its cash on hand, existing subscriber base and contracts to build networks in larger cities like Philadelphia, Anaheim, Calif., and New Orleans.

The main competitor, St. Petersburg-based Citi Wifi, talked of its projects in Dunedin, Treasure Island and West Palm Beach. Citi said its technology would be more cost effective than Earthlink's and suggested the out-of-town company was overpromising to get the deal.

"What you see going on around the nation is what we said would happen," said Frank McCarthy, Citi president.

McCarthy had said he could use less equipment to build a Wi-Fi network so it would need fewer subscribers to be viable. But he now says he would want the city to commit to paying to use a network before he would build one.

"This is more about a business play, and the city is a big business," he said. "They have to put some skin in the game."

Gadiwalla said he is open to talking to Citi but is concerned that most of the firm's work is on a much smaller scale. McCarthy said he'll talk to the city but hasn't heard from anyone and is focused on his current projects.

McCarthy said Citi aims for smaller markets to give personalized service, but he bid for St. Petersburg because it's home. He said he's in talks with 30 cities in the state, but those talks are on hold while everyone sees how circumstances and new technologies play out nationally.

"Right now, the idea of building a network at a service provider's expense, with the goal of providing 95 percent coverage of "street-facing first-floor rooms" as bids often required with no advance commitment from a city to buy any services seems rather ludicrous," said Glenn Fleishman, editor of Wifi Networking News.

Fleishman said other varieties of Wi-Fi might be more viable, including WiMax, another type of wireless access. Sprint, a former Earthlink partner, is building a multibillion-dollar nationwide WiMax network that might obviate the need for Wi-Fi.

McCarthy said the city could have better communications for less money by working with his company. The city could accomplish that by owning the network, too, he agreed, which is why cities like San Francisco are considering building their own networks. Being an Internet provider is no different than supplying water or electricity, which many cities do.

"The feasible municipal model is to recognize that city governments have immense internal communication needs, and that these are often handled poorly," said Christian Sandvig, a communications researcher at the University of Illinois.

"Next, cities need to recognize that providing broadband infrastructure is an important economic development goal, and it is something that is worth spending money on. Broadband is an important component of a modern city, not a frill or an amenity," Sandvig said.

Gadiwalla said he's eager to have a network but doesn't have the money for something that would cost more than $7-million to build. Miami-Dade County is trying to build its own network and is running into technical problems, though it is pushing ahead.

Other models include community- or neighborhood-driven networks or a proposal by Silicon Valley venture capitalists to build a nationwide wireless network. And while the build-for-free model seems out of favor, one of the bidders for the St. Petersburg contract, Tampa's e-Path Communications, just received the nod for such a network in Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island, N.Y.

McCarthy said he would be willing to work with the city in a piecemeal fashion, connecting city buildings for government services and creating Wi-Fi hot spots around them, then adding commercial corridors and other high-traffic areas.

He said it's not his move now.

"They selected their winner," he said. "They haven't called us back."

Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or pswider@sptimes.com.