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The Philadelphia Experiment

The winner of the contract to provide Philadephians with free wireless Internet access is a consortium led by EarthLink Inc..

EarthLink will work with Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) and startup Tropos Networks to unwire 135 square miles of the city, using WiFi mesh networking hardware.

EarthLink was one of two finalists in bidding to unwire Philadelphia, the other was Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ).

EarthLink's winning charm? Simple: The company is going to pay for the network.

"Their bid is unique in that they have agreed to finance the network, eliminating the financial burden on the city," says Brad Day, Tropos's director of marketing and communications, via email.

But, in fact -- as previously reported -- the real winner here is Tropos Networks, which has been poised to supply WiFi mesh networking gear to whichever party won. (See Tropos Pairs With HP, Bags $15M.)

Tropos is one of the startups that has made the early running in the mesh market by using low-cost 802.11 radios as the basis of routing nodes that pass data among themselves and require far fewer wired connections to operate than typical WiFi networks. This technology has been pushed as "metro mesh," a cheap way for municipalities and operators to offer large public access networks that can often also be used to provide wireless access for emergency workers.

The startup already has many smaller deployments in place -- in fact it claims to have more than 250 customers. But Philadelphia is clearly the first big test of the viability of municipal mesh technology.

We'll update this story as more details emerge.

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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