Philadelphia Buys Earthlink’s Failed Municipal Wi-Fi Network

Philadelphia Love

The city of Philadelphia has announced it intends to pay $2 million to take over the Wi-Fi network Earthlink originally built for the city, although the city is also putting itself on the hook for as much as $17 million more through its 2015 fiscal year to build out and update the network in an effort to convert the bulk of the city into one giant Wi-Fi hotspot.

The existing Wi-Fi network has been operated by the Network Acquisition Company, which bought the assets off Earthlink in June 2008 as a stopgap measure. Now the city is exercising an option in an August 2009 agreement to acquire the network with the goal of creating a public safety and municipal wireless network—which, among other things, will provide free Internet access to targeted public spaces.

“Acquiring these assets is a major step forward for the city,” said Philadelphia’s Chief Technology Officer Allan Frank. “With this investment we will have the capability to build a robust public safety and municipal network, enhancing public safety and government operations, at the same time as achieving long-term savings for the taxpayer. This is a win-win for Philadelphia.”

The defunct Earthlink Wi-Fi network—one of the many “muni-fi” projects the ISP launched then backed away from as its finances soured. Philadelphia intends to expand the core fiber network used to link the hotspots together, first supporting municipal and public safety uses then offering limited public space Internet.

If the current project comes to fruition, it will still fall short of the city’s ambitious 2004 plans to roll out free Wi-Fi Internet service to everyone in town. However, the current plan is more in line with municipal Internet efforts in many other large cities, which have city governments rolling their own fiber networks (rather than leasing lines from telecommunications companies) to enhance government efficiency and public safety networks, then bolting on limited free public Internet access.