Philly goes wild for Wi-Fi

EarthLink races to deploy megamunicipal mesh network in Philadelphia

Philadelphia is becoming one of the world's biggest Wi-Fi hot spots.

In May, after a 15-square-mile test zone passed muster, the city gave EarthLink the green light to cover the entire 135-square-mile city with a wireless mesh network by year-end.

EarthLink is moving full-speed ahead, adding Tropos Networks access points to light poles around the city, testing and optimizing the network, and building out coverage at a pace of 5,000 potential households per workday. Today, coverage has expanded to 80% of the city.

From a technology perspective, creating a full-blown mesh network across an entire city -- from parks to tourist attractions to downtown skyscrapers to residential neighborhoods with brownstones jammed together -- presents quite a challenge.

"It was important for people to be mobile and treat the entire city network as one large, unified network, so if they attached in one place they could start surfing the Web and keep the connection even if they went to another point across town," says Jeb Linton, director and chief architect for EarthLink.

"No system in the world had ever been able to scale to that level of mobility in a Wi-Fi network," Linton adds. "So we had a unique architectural challenge to enable this."

EarthLink is building out the network using Tropos 802.11b/g access points, which connect to a complex backhaul system that uses Motorola Canopy line-of-sight radios and Alvarion BreezeAccess VL non-line-of-sight radios.

As with any project of this scale, problems have emerged and original planning assumptions have had to be adjusted. For example, EarthLink has had to double the number of access points per square mile, from an original estimate of 20 to the current figure of 42, to provide the requisite level of coverage. In addition, after the access points are installed, there's a four- to six-week optimization process designed to maximize coverage.

"We are using our tools to drive testing, and we use customer feedback to improve coverage. We don't think we'll ever get to 100% coverage, but we are very happy with 90% until technology, both on our side and on the user's side improves," says Donald Berryman, president of EarthLink Municipal Networks.

Even with 42 access points per square mile, customers who want in-home or in-building coverage need a special, high-powered Wi-Fi modem from Ruckus Wireless or PePLink. EarthLink sells or rents the units and offers them for free to customers who sign a one-year contract.

Despite the technical issues, EarthLink is confident it will be able to scale out mobile broadband across the city, as well as turn a profit on its $13.5 million investment. The city is excited about the potential benefits, which fall into several categories:

1. Economic. At the core of the project is the expectation of increased economic development through the availability of wireless Internet access, according to Philadelphia CIO Terry Phillis.

2. Tourism. "We hope for enhanced tourism opportunities and to have the whole city identified as a hot spot for anyone who would come here," Phillis says.

3. Municipal use. The city foresees inspectors and other mobile city workers using the Wi-Fi network to communicate back to the office. "This technology is a perfect opportunity for them to use the Internet, with communication back to the centralized system, anyplace they go in the city," says Varinia Robinson, the city's director of technology.

4. Web access for low-income families. 25,000 half-price accounts have been earmarked for welfare-to-work and low-income qualifying households. The basic retail price for the Wi-Fi broadband Internet service is about $20 per month, and Wireless Philadelphia, the nonprofit agency created to help administer the program, offers the service for $9.95 per month. In some cases, the low-cost broadband access will be bundled with laptops and training paid for by community-based organizations," says Wireless Philadelphia's CEO Greg Goldman.

5. Increased competition for residential broadband. EarthLink is challenging Verizon and Comcast in the residential broadband market, and city officials predict that this competition will bring rates down for everyone.

Network World plans to provide ongoing coverage of Philadelphia's ambitious Wi-Fi project. This story focuses on the buildout of the network, but future stories will cover how well the city is meeting the goals it has laid out. We're also looking for feedback from residents, tourists and visitors to the city. If you'd like to share your wireless experiences, go here >>.

Next story: That's how EarthLink rolls >

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