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. SiliconValley.com 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?
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.
This post is also posted on www.saschameinrath.com.
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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.