A Closer Look At EarthLink's Muni WiFi Strategy

I had a really great conversation the other day with Cole Reinwand, Vice President of Municipal Product Strategy & Marketing for EarthLink. He basically gave me an overview of where the company is right now with regard to their efforts in developing and deploying wireless networks to municipalities across the country.

As we all know, EarthLink won the biggest prize so far in the muni WiFi stakes in securing the contract to build the Wireless Philadelphia network last year. According to Reinwand, the City Council has to give its final approval, which should be occuring in the next few weeks, and the great hookup in Philly will soon get underway. He said the company has done its utmost to answer all the questions about where antennas will be placed throughout the city, as well as making sure that low-income residents will be able to access the network just as equally as anyone else. The cost to access the network will be $20 a month, and qualified low-income users will be charged $10 a month.
 
Reinwand said construction is slated to begin by this summer and the network will be fully accessible to all parts of the city by spring of '07.

The conversation was not solely devoted to Philadelphia, I assure you. Reinwand gave a brief history of why EarthLink is centering more of its efforts on WiFi, saying that the dialup business that the company was initally famous for has been trickling away for some time now and that the signs pointed to broadband as a way to stay ahead of the curve as well as responding to customer needs.

 

Cole lined out some of the foundation of EarthLink's shift to broadband, including the thought that cities want to offer more choices for their residents beyond what the cable and phone companies already provide, and that municipalities are looking to bridge the digital divide between those who have broadband access to the Internet and those who don't.

In addition, Reinwand says that cities are increasingly of the belief that these types of networks are becoming more cost-effective and, in the long run, they will pay for themselves and then some over time between user access fees as well as advertising and sponsorship opportunities. He says the company recognizes the two business models that have emerged when it comes to citywide wireless networks:

  • The municipality owns and manages the network
  • A private sector, franchise-operated model

However, in any muni WiFi effort, it takes more than just cool sounding technological language to sell it to the public. Cole says that it is always important to find a champion in the community who will support the initiative, preferably someone with a great deal of political clout, such as a mayor or a city council member. In Philadephia, for example, Mayor John Street has been firmly behind the wireless network from virtually the beginning.

As of now, EarthLink has submitted proposals to several cities, and has already won the Philadelphia and Anaheim bids. It is currently a finalist in Minneapolis and Portland, and sees opportunity in roughly 20 to 40 markets across the country, including San Francisco. I asked Reinwand about what is going on in New York City, and he answered that it is still in the earliest of stages, but the company will certainly look to submit an RFP when the time comes.

At this juncture, EarthLink's initial focus is on the bigger (250,000 resident) cities. Companies like NeoReach Wireless are doing quite well with municipalities in the 100,000 to 250,000 range. Reinwand said one of the biggest questions that EarthLink must address in any project planning is how dense are the households per square mile. The reason being is that a denser, more populated city like Philadelphia is much easier to hook up then would be a rural area. However, he added this won't be much of a concern in the future because as radio costs decline and performance improves, you can cover more houses.

Reinwand added the company is currently developing a Network Alliance franchise program whereby independent operators can leverage EarthLink's capabilities to bring broadband wireless coverage to either smaller localities or more rural areas. EarthLink's recent technology partnerships with Motorola and Tropos Networks to supply the equipment (radios, antennas, etc.) to build these networks gives them a strong marketing tool to leverage as they submit proposals. Reinwand says that Motorola's strengths are in the overall technology, and Tropos has particular expertise in mesh WiFi. In any case, this alliance further strengthens their market position, and their competitors may see fit to take the same tack and partner with other vendors.

As we wound up our conversation, I asked Reinwand about some of the concern addressed by a number of people around the country about what will be done to bring broadband wireless access to low-income residents. He mentioned that there has been some talk about partnering with others to do this, including:

  • Possibly working with PC manufacturers to develop low-cost, basic computers
  • Partnering with the One Laptop per Child initiative seeking to sell $100 Internet-capable laptops to governments throughout the world in a U.S.-based opportunity
  • Looking at Microsoft and leveraging their TV2 platform

In any case, the company is well aware of the digital divide, and seems willing to do what it can to lessen the gap. Obviously, it makes good business sense, too.

All in all, it looks like EarthLink seems to have it all going for them when it comes to large municipal WiFi projects. They are the big man on campus for the moment, and as Reinwand mentioned, the Wireless Philadelphia initiative will be a huge and important template for them moving forward. Of course, every community is different, and it is up to EarthLink as well as other vendors to have the capability to respond to their needs through technological innovation as well as economic feasibility to make broaband wireless access available to anyone who wants it.

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