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The public Internet wireless network that was supposed to be a model for the nation may be up for sale before it's even finished. The WiFi network in Philadelphia has been plagued by delays and spotty service. Now Earthlink, the company that's building it, is getting out of the municipal wireless business in other cities. As Joel Rose reports, that may leave Philadelphia disconnected.
JOEL ROSE: Officially, work on Philadelphia's city-wide WiFi network continues. Earthlink installers are still attaching wireless routers to light posts in some neighborhoods. But City Councilman Brian O'Neill says the effort has slowed to a crawl.
Mr. BRIAN O'NEILL (Philadelphia City Councilman): They haven't met deadlines. And the most difficult areas of the city to do this in are the northeast and northwest, and they haven't done it.
ROSE: Earthlink has not explicitly said that it's abandoning the project. But when the city council held hearings last month on the network's progress, representatives from the company failed to show up. Earthlink officials also turned down our requests for an interview. Their last public statement on the topic came in November, in a press release that said the company is considering, quote, "strategic alternatives" for the network.
Mr. TERRY PHILLIS (Chief Information Officer, Philadelphia): You might assume from that that it would be up for sale.
ROSE: Philadelphia's chief information officer, Terry Phillis, says the city has the right to block such a sale.
Mr. PHILLIS: With our relationship with Earthlink right now, we obviously expect them to live up to their contact, complete the network, and deliver the services that they were contracted for.
ROSE: Earthlink agreed to pay to build the entire network in Philadelphia and several other cities with the hope of making a profit by selling subscriptions. But last summer the company laid off most of its municipal wireless team nationwide and paid a $5 million dollar fine not to build a network in Houston. That leaves Philadelphia City Councilman Brian O'Neill wondering whether people really want to pay $20 a month for wireless.
Mr. O'NEILL: When the city decided to do this amidst great fanfare a couple of years ago, it was we'll build and they will come. You know, I'm not sure that that's playing out.
ROSE: Earthlink has never revealed how many customers signed up for a service that's been inconsistent, to put it nicely. But there has been a healthy demand for WiFi in other cities, according to Sasha Meinrath or the New America Foundation, a non-partisan social policy think tank in Washington, D.C.
Mr. SASHA MEINRATH (New America Foundation): The true municipal networks, the ones that are owned and operated by municipalities, are moving full steam ahead, whereas the corporate municipal networks, those are the ones that are faltering.
ROSE: Meinrath says the successful networks in small and mid-sized cities tend to have more modest goals and expectations. In some cases they're intended for city employees and emergency responders as well as consumers, which means there's less pressure to turn a profit from subscriptions. The two-year-old WiFi network in St. Cloud, Florida was built just for consumers, and it's free. That may explain why one in five residents uses it regularly, according to David Lane, the president of the St. Cloud chamber of commerce.
Mr. DAVID LANE (St. Cloud Chamber of Commerce): There's a lot of businesspeople who make use of it in their day-to-day activities when they're, say, out of the office. As we're trying to build a local economy, I think it's very valuable.
ROSE: The network in St. Cloud cost city tax payers $3 million to build. Politicians in Philadelphia are quick to remind critics that Earthlink is picking up the bill here. The company is also helping to pay for programs aimed at closing the digital divide between rich and poor, in a city where 25 percent of residents live below the poverty line. The non-profit group Wireless Philadelphia is working with the city and Earthlink to distribute laptop computers, training, and cheap Internet access to 700 low-income households. CEO Greg Goldman says they're using the WiFi network in spite of its problems.
Mr. GREG GOLDMAN (Wireless Philadelphia): Even against the backdrop of all of this that's been going on, we continue to sign people up. We continue to raise dollars, and we continue to develop and implement creative programs.
ROSE: But those efforts too could be in jeopardy. City Councilman Brian O'Neill says he wouldn't be surprised to see Earthlink pull the plug on Philadelphia completely after its no-show at last month's council hearing.
Mr. O'NEILL: I got the distinct impression that we're heading to litigation, and probably some pretty substantial litigation.
ROSE: As long Earthlink keeps working on the network, it won't be in violation of its contract until the end of the year, although city officials are hoping for a resolution long before that. For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.
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