EarthLink cash to fund Houston wireless bubbles: have cities become so timid?

Mayor Bill White of Houston has decided to use the $3.5 million paid by EarthLink (out of the $5 million penalty for non-delivery of the Houston network) to build Wi-Fi “bubbles” (strange term, that one) in low-income parts of Houston. The idea is that these “bubbles” will somehow bridge the digital divide.

The first question one should ask is: why isn’t the city of Houston suing EarthLink up the wazoo for breaching the contract?

The second question is: does this make sense?

Why is the mayor setting up a network in areas where people obviously are not running around with iPod Touches, iPhones, Wi-Fi enabled mobile phones and laptops?

I understand that people in low-income neighborhoods may not have enough cash to pay for broadband, so why not just pay each of them to get broadband at home and throw in a computer too? Or how about doing some smart aggregate buying: gather together 1000 low-income households, go up to an an ISP and say, “I’ve got 1000 families, how about a good deal for each of them?” I’ll bet some ISP would say yes, especially if it could use the good PR. The ISP gets paid by the city, the families get their broadband, no one has to run around setting up wireless nodes.

When did cities become so timid?

This fixation on deploying wireless broadband for low-income neighborhoods under the guise of solving the digital divide is utterly incomprehensible. If it is indeed cheaper to bring high-speed connections in this manner, then fine. But if you could more easily and cheaply provide those families with wired connections, as I’ve proposed above, then do that.

What I see in a lot of cities is that politicians are using “Wi-Fi for low income communities” as a cheap and easy way out of their real obligation, which is to take leadership for laying down a robust, open telecommunications infrastructure (based on fiber) that benefits everyone, not just low-income people. That’s harder to do, and certainly more politically risky, since that means going up against various communications incumbents that fund political campaigns, and pissing off people who have a stake in keeping things the way they are.

I’m not accusing Mayor White of being a coward. Rather I am calling on him and the other people who run cities to step up to the plate and stop hiding behind cute little digital inclusion projects that in the end, do nothing but harm their communities’ competitive position in the long run by leaving them even farther behind on the technological curve.

As Graham Greene wrote in “The Quiet American” (about Alden Pyle): I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.


  1. Marty Hahnfeld says

    Esme, your inner-lawyer is showing. Sue EarthLink? That’s just Silly talk.

    Do you think ELNK should be forced to pursue, a business which was not profitable?

    Besides, thats what the $5M was for… the penalty for not performing. I think it’s plenty given how far things got, don’t you? Do you think any other vendor would have gotten any further, given the list of likely suspects from the time?

    The Houston project was the height of poor judgement… 600 square miles of coverage without commitment. Please.

    A better suggestion might be to simply MOVE ON and not kick the corpse any more. After all, $3.5M which is still to be used for Wi-Fi is pretty damn good, and likely still makes Houston the best capitalized project going!

  2. Part of the problem is that many people that were leading the Muni Wireless initiative live in “Ivory Towers” and don’t understand real community needs.

    The Houston strategy for bridging the digital divide is based on sound community needs assessments.

    The need is for more computer access centers that provide education, access, and training programs run by non-profit community groups.

    These programs are located in apartment buildings, churches, and community centers.

    The Houston library provides over 500 public access computers. This viral community approach will easily result in over 5000 public access computers in centers throughout low income communities.

    Free web-based software (Rosetta Stone, ThinkFree, COSMEO, etc.) is offered to community users. Corporate donated and discounted PC’s are provide through the City program in addition to 6 Mbps symmetrical broadband access.

    The initial neighborhood network serves 60,000 low income Houstonians. The 10 initial neighborhoods will serve over 500,000 Houstonians.

    Building the network based on user requirements… what a concept.

    Don’t mess with Texas!

  3. Marty,

    I am not suggesting that Houston set up a giant citywide Wi-Fi network for public access. What I am saying is that these little wireless bubbles are being set up in the wrong place!

    But it still baffles me how a city can simply let someone who has a contractual obligation get away for very little money. I don’t think they’d treat a road building contractor this way. Then again, it shows just how much “commitment” the city had to this project in the first place. Houston should not force EarthLink to pursue a certain type of business. Indeed, under the contract laws of most US states, Houston cannot. Courts will not grant “specific performance” (i.e. force EarthLink to build out and run the network) if the courts can simply award damages, which seems to be the case here. Of course, if Houston had contractually chosen a penalty (as a liquidated damages clause) in the amount of $5M, then it’s a shamefully low amount.

    I agree with you that setting up a Wi-Fi network in a gigantic area that is basically an agglomeration of suburbs where hardly anyone walks or takes public transport is not exactly a sound plan. Setting up networks in areas where people do walk, hang out in cafes, etc. is better. There are some places like that in Houston, one of which is the Montrose area. That’s where the Mayor should be setting up his wireless bubbles.

    As for what I think about the Houston project, I posted my thoughts on that a long time ago, back in the halcyon days when Houston issued its RFP.
    Here’s what I wrote on 21 March 2006 (quote):


    Moreover, the city wants coverage everywhere – a very challenging undertaking. Houston is one of those cities that give the word “urban sprawl” (or perhaps suburban sprawl is a better term) a special meaning. If you like concrete highway bypasses, mini-malls, endless stretches of identical houses and condos, and sparkling new fast food outlets, Houston is your kind of town. I was just there last week and it seems that there are new communities and mini-malls sprouting everywhere. If a provider were to put up a network today and the city required it to guarantee 95% coverage, the provider’s work would never be finished. It would be difficult for a provider to specify the scope of work because the city keeps sprawling out into the endless horizon. For those who like challenges, this may be the ultimate one.

    Now I was hoping back then that this little premonition would never come true. I had hoped that the city would break up this project into little “bubbles” (there we go again with that term), meaning set up networks in areas where there is a concrete application. In subsequent posts on Muniwireless, pronouncements from the city indicated that it was headed that way.