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San Francisco Free Wi-Fi Plan Fails 117

Reader r writes with news from San Francisco that Earthlink has backed out of contract negotiations to blanket the city with free Wi-Fi, citing money problems. Seems like only yesterday that Chicago's Wi-Fi deal fell apart for much the same reason. Quoting: "The contract, which was three years in the making, had run into snags with the Board of Supervisors, but ultimately it was undone when Atlanta-based EarthLink announced Tuesday that it no longer believed providing citywide Wi-Fi was economically viable for the company... EarthLink spokesman Jerry Grasso said that EarthLink was willing to work with San Francisco but had decided that it 'was not willing to work in the business model where EarthLink fronts all the money to build, own and operate the network.'"
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San Francisco Free Wi-Fi Plan Fails

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  • by kammat ( 114899 ) on Thursday August 30, 2007 @01:18PM (#20413595)
    I wonder if this will affect Philadelphia also. We've been receiving advertisements in the mail announcing Earthlink as Philly's citywide wi-fi provider, but with Chicago and San Fran now stopped, and San Fran not seen as profitable, I find it hard to imagine that the Philadelphia city area will be as viable.
  • Re:It is free. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by jockm ( 233372 ) on Thursday August 30, 2007 @01:42PM (#20413961) Homepage
    Well that and the government gets something out of the deal. They aren't just rolling over to some corporate entity. In exchange for offering up city infastructure, they get guaranteed access to the wireless network. That is worth something.
  • Re:Wifi monopolies (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Kohath ( 38547 ) on Thursday August 30, 2007 @01:58PM (#20414169)
    For cable TV, it's a corrupt deal. The cable company pays for exclusivity by collecting a lot of taxes from their subscribers. They funnel this money into the city's coffers to be spent on goodies (essentially vote-buying for the city council).

    City councils should cut those taxes and allow cable companies to compete, offering subscribers better TV service at lower prices. But people see the new municipal goodies and credit their city councilman then they blame the cable company for the size of the bill.
  • Technical Issues (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Sarusa ( 104047 ) on Thursday August 30, 2007 @02:06PM (#20414303)
    Earthlink badly overreached themselves here with two major mistakes - first, deciding to use Tropos equipment to paint an entire city. Most of the money you burn in setting up a wifi installation is in the install and then trying to get everything to work when your planning tools are out of sync with reality (which is almost always). Tropos's mesh equipment is crap, so they've wasted months and burned untold money trying to nail jello to a wall.

    Second, trying to blanket an entire city at once is doable, but it's far more practical to grow the network from little seed areas (while keeping future growth in mind) - blanket a six block area of downtown, for instance, and then expand from that. This lets you get everything right for a small area before you apply that to larger areas - it's the way almost all WISP (wireless ISPs) operate and it works fairly well.

    I think Earthlink finally realized it wasn't gonna work, which of course makes all the assumptions under which they signed contracts not so great for them.
  • by Potatomasher ( 798018 ) on Thursday August 30, 2007 @02:11PM (#20414371)
    Remind me again what the business plan is for free municipal wifi ?
    Oh right, there is none.
  • by klenwell ( 960296 ) <klenwell&gmail,com> on Thursday August 30, 2007 @02:52PM (#20414869) Homepage Journal
    Last year Earthlink rolled out wi-fi in the city of Anaheim with much (well, a bit of) local fanfare. I was leasing a small office for myself for part-time use in Anaheim and it sounded like a pretty good deal, esp. compared to what AT&T was offering for a small business package (which was basically the poorest home broadband package at 3x the price.)

    I signed up on the year-contract to get the best rate. Service was very spotty. Aggravating at times, but generally ok for my purposes since I was using my access now and then to check email and to research any questions that came up in the course of my work. Most my work was being done offline.

    What really turned me off the service is that Earthlink offered no email support -- you had to call their support line (off-shored) and wait on hold for an indeterminate amount of time to get simple questions answered. Also, I was never able to pick up a signal from my laptop's wireless card. I needed to be cabled into their ugly little wireless modem. Even from the Starbucks at the epicenter of the coverage area (across the street from City Hall), I couldn't get a signal on my wireless card directly.

    I had a suspicion that the service was going to be a colossal failure. I canceled just last week as soon as my year was up. Hadn't even used it the last three months I paid for it. Interesting now to see these agreements crumbling left and right. I get the impression that it's much harder to deploy reliable city-wide wireless service than it looks on paper. (I saw crews installing the little wireless transponders on lampposts across the city -- how much has to be put in maintaining these things? Bird shit a factor?)

    And with the limited initial rollout area, I always wondered how economically viable it was going to be. It was supposed to be citywide by around this time, but even then I question how many people are going to sign up for this. Finally, I suspect it's much less viable for the high-demand media-rich content people are now coming to expect online.

    It's too bad because the failure of wi-fi just reinforces the cable/telecom strangehold over broadband service. Is wi-fi actually succeeding anywhere?
  • by athloi ( 1075845 ) on Thursday August 30, 2007 @03:02PM (#20414991) Homepage Journal html []

    One astute commentator [] wrote:

    A better idea might be to sell repeaters (and bandwidth) to businesses at a discount rate, so that they can give their customers free public wi-fi. If the City of Houston chipped in for a few of its parks and libraries, we'd be basically complete, since there are almost no public spaces in America that aren't businesses or government institutions.

  • Springfield, IL, too (Score:3, Interesting)

    by spune ( 715782 ) on Thursday August 30, 2007 @05:12PM (#20416701)
    Our plans for municipal wifi through AT&T just fell through, too. All of these muni-wifi plans biting the dust at just about the same time seems a little suspicious.

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