How hard did EarthLink try to help its muni-WiFi customers?

Did EarthLink really try that hard to find suitable alternatives for those muni-WiFi networks the dial-up ISP has shut down over the past several months because it couldn't make a go of the business? That is the question being asked by a lot of folks lately.

The latest network to go dark is Philadelphia (See story No. 2). EarthLink and the city reportedly were negotiating for the city to take over the network in some way, but apparently couldn't reach an agreement; nor could EarthLink find a company to take over the network. Such has also been the case in New Orleans, where EarthLink's network is scheduled to go dark May 18. Other cities have purchased their networks outright.

It seems to most industry watchers, however, that EarthLink has been unfair in its dealings with these cities, giving them short time frames to find a buyer or shutting them out of the negotiating process altogether. For many months, the ISP left them in limbo about what its plans were in terms of the muni-WiFi network. All the while, these cities thought EarthLink would honor their contracts because of the stiff monetary penalties involved. If they would have been given definite answers early on, they could have been researching alternatives on their own for some time. Negotiating deals and alternatives are complex and time-intensive.

In Philadelphia, for instance, one of EarthLink's showcase cities for muni-WiFi, city officials said in January they thought EarthLink might pull out of Philadelphia but weren't expecting an answer for another 60 days. Officials figured EarthLink would pull the plug on the network when it heard in the news that the company would eliminate 900 workers by the end of 2007.

In the meantime, the muni-WiFi business is bouncing back in other cities where network operators are working with more sensible business models that include local government anchor tenants and/or a few other high-user tenants such as colleges and medical campuses. But it appears EarthLink has blinders on as it continually says the muni-WiFi business doesn't work. Of course everyone knows now that the general consumer muni-WiFi approach doesn't work. The company just wants out of the business.

"EarthLink's corporate culture is just about the consumer," noted Craig Settles, muni-WiFi expert and author. "It could have turned this into a business play, offering muni-WiFi as an extension of cities' wired infrastructure or it could have turned to different partners and found a better and more graceful way to turn this bump in the road into a business."

It's especially a shame for the Philly network, which has had one of the longest-running networks in the country. According to Settles, the city did one of the best jobs in terms of needs assessment and planning, it was always clear about the purpose of the network and never got on the free-broadband-for-the-masses mentality. It' main mission was to spur economic development, offer cheaper service to bridge the digital divide and reduce the cost of government. Partner Wireless Philadelphia has been aggressively moving to offer discounted services to under-served areas of the city, funded by community partners and other sources. Government users were given access too. And the network was about 80 percent complete.

Still, Wireless Philadelphia says it continues to work with the city to identify alternatives for keeping the network. Interestingly, Wireless Philadelphia says nothing in the 10-year network agreement it and the city has with EarthLink permits the ISP to unilaterally impose deadlines for the network's transfer, turn off the network or remove network equipment. Perhaps we'll see some 11th hour legal action before the network goes dark?--Lynnette