Guest commentary: Philadelphia network flop points to failure of corporate franchise model

Last year, New America Foundation released an in-depth report and analysis of the Wireless Philadelphia Project, “The Philadelphia Story: Learning from a Municipal Wireless Pioneer.” We concluded that the private franchise model was suboptimal and that Philadelphia’s solution was problematic in a number of ways. At the time, we received good press coverage and a helluvalot of blowback from certain constituencies (who continued to assert that everything was on track).

Now that we’ve made it to May, 2008, Wireless Philadelphia is on its last legs. While many of us are still working to salvage something from this mess, reading through the New America Foundation report, it’s amazingly how eerily prescient it is. Ironically, the solution we proposed was exactly what has been on the table for the past couple months — but, as with far too many innovative ideas, this one got mired in the muck of Philly politics and, perhaps, personal egos.

Sadly, the mainstream press continue to demonstrate a remarkable ignorance by tagging this failure as a failure of “municipal wireless” — the reality is, the Philadelphia model is a corporate franchise granted to EarthLink — much of the problem stems from the fact that the municipality has no control or ownership over the network and EarthLink has demonstrated no accountability to the local community. Conde Nast’s Portfolio gets it completely wrong — heading their story, “Another Municipal Wi-Fi Plan Dies” — which is a particular shame since I’ve spoken with the article’s author, Sam Gustin, previously and he knows better.

Computer World labels the Earthlink failure as, “another blow to the municipal Wi-Fi market”, when a better understanding of the situation would dictate that it’s a failure of the corporate franchise business model. rightfully points out that where Earthlink’s wireless networks have been taken over by municipalities, they’ve continued to operate, while those that haven’t (e.g., Philly and New Orleans) they’re being shut down. Isn’t the story, then, that where corporate franchises are converted into municipal networks, the networks continue to thrive?

The story’s also being covered by PC World, Digital Trends, and a host of other news organizations.

My recommendation? Read The Philadelphia Story: Learning from a Municipal Wireless Pioneer, check out my recent article for GovTech’s Digital Communities, Municipal Wireless Success Demands Public Involvement, and remain critical of the notion that the death of municipal wireless is nigh.

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Sascha Meinrath is the Research Director for the New America Foundation’s Wireless Future Program. Additionally, he coordinates the Open Source Wireless Coalition, a global partnership of open source wireless integrators, researchers, implementors and companies dedicated to the development of open source, interoperable, low-cost wireless technologies.


  1. All of the municipal Wi-Fi systems failed because there was no real RF analysis done and no statement of work. Expectations were never defined. Therefore any financial model based on that technical information was never going to be accurate. Throw in a failure of marketing to know how to really use the network and it just gets worse.

    1) Let’s start with the idea that everybody needs ubiquitous coverage through their house. That was never going to happen regardless of what the radio manufacturers said. Make the expectations more realistic. We solved that problem 5 years ago and will now be releasing it into the cities we worked with.

    2) Move forward to the concept that you need a $1200-$5000 access point with mesh. The reality is that most of the radios used $150 modules from Ubiquiti with mesh software. There were many variations but that was the reality. It’s now 5 years later and equipment that is far less expensive is now available using the same modules. That alone drops the capex by a factor of 3 or more.

    3) We need mesh. Wrong. You could use mesh or WDS and saw no difference in performance. That fact it was mesh just added to the cost. How about just monitoring your network and dynamically making changes to support additional bandwidth or equipment failure.

    4) You need multiple radios per access point. Sure, if you had high bandwidth needs. However, what about just adding additional backhaul in areas of high congestion and reducing the hops as, and here is the financial kick in the pants, “your revenue in an area increases to cover the Capex cost!”. Profitability, what a concept!

    5) Mesh redistibutes paths based on load making it more efficient. B.S.! Not every mesh manufacturer implemented that feature and the reality is, who cares. Go back to my previous statement.

    6) Make the access points multi-radio and multi-frequency to increase efficiency. Here’s my point to that. Another stupid idea. Drives up costs of equipment that doesn’t get evenly distributed across the applications it’s being used for financially.

    Most of these are common sense that should be applied to any radio deployment. However, they were apparently missed when Earthlink, Metrofi, MobilePro, and others were blowing through tens of millions of dollars of their investors money. Next time hire real RF engineers instead of network engineer lackey’s who think they have some clue about RF trained by the very corporations trying to sell you equipment. An RF engineer could have told you that your expectations of performance were never realistic. And if anybody listens to these consultants like Jonathan Balco and Civitium who never installed an AP in their life, you get what you deserve.


    Let’s get right to it – you need REAL engineering and infrastructure consultants, not self-proclaimed experts that think they know what they are doing – when they don’t.

    If you really knew network engineering – all of it, not just wireless, you would understand that WiFi might not be the right choice to cover a large metropolitan area.

    As I said in one of my articles – just because you built a Lionel railroad in your basement doesn’t mean that you can now become the Chief Infratructure Engineer for the Burlington Northern. The same applies to network infrastructure. A couple of successful WIFi implementations in some coffee shops do not translate into undetstanding network topographies for major metropolitan areas. Read and learn:,-WIMAX-EVOLUTION.html

    James Carlini