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Philly City Council OKs WiFi Plan

In a 15-0 vote, the Philadelphia City Council on Thursday approved a long-awaited plan for a municipal WiFi network that will span 135 square miles.

Service provider EarthLink Inc. (Nasdaq: ELNK) is in charge of the deployment, using wireless mesh and backhaul equipment from Tropos Networks Inc. and Motorola Computer Group . EarthLink officially won the Philly bid last October, which starts with a 10-year service contract. (See The Philadelphia Experiment.)

Within the next week and a half, the proposal should make its way to the city's soliciter general and then to Mayor John Street, who already has signed several contracts with EarthLink. Street explained in March that the City Council had to approve two ordinances before approving the project -- a streetlight use agreement between the city and the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development, and a management agreement between the city and Wireless Philadelphia, the non-profit entity that Street incorporated in March 2005 to manage the network.

"We should start building something a month from now," says Jerry Grasso, a spokesman for EarthLink. "We don't foresee anything keeping us from doing so."

The initial buildout will cover just a 15-mile test area, but the plan is to cover the full 135-mile area by the third quarter of 2007.

"The 15 square-mile thing is just an initial phase, not a 'go, no-go' type of thing," says Brad Day, a spokesman for Tropos. "It’s a way for EarthLink to set up a network and verify that it is up to Wireless Philadelphia’s expectations. If something needs to be changed, or education needs to happen, it’s better to do it before the complete 135 square-mile deployment."

Several U.S. cities already have deployed municipal meshes, but Wireless Philadelphia has been in the spotlight both for its size and its politics.

"There's a big difference between deploying 135 square miles in Philadelphia and 50 miles in Anaheim," says math whiz Grasso. (See EarthLink Unwires Anaheim.)

But the Philadelphia deal also raised the wrath of incumbent carriers. At the urging of Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ), the governor of Pennsylvania in December 2004 signed into law House Bill 30, which includes a provision that lets incumbent carriers prevent cities from creating and charging for municipal WiFi networks. Philadelphia and Verizon managed to come to terms before the bill was finalized.

"But if Pittsburgh wanted to build their own broadband network to address digital divide issues, they would have to go to Verizon and give them the opportunity to build out service," says Tropos's Day. "Problem is, there are no provisions for pricing, level of service, etc., and the incumbent has something like 24 months to start their build-out, so it really makes it impossible for cities to effectively address the needs of their citizens."

Pennsylvania's telco bill generally prohibits cities from charging for services directly, which is something that EarthLink's customers have avoided anyway, with a public/private partnership.

"In some states there are regulations against cities setting up broadband networks," writes Esme Vos, founder of Muniwireless LLC, which tracks muni WiFi deployments, in an email message to Light Reading. "But for the most part, the biggest barrier is getting mounting rights to the poles. Some cities own the rights to all of the light poles, but in others you have to deal with the electric utility, who is not always as accommodating."

— Carmen Nobel, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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