Philadelphia's long-promised municipal wireless system has finally arrived, at least in some neighborhoods.

To see how well the system being built by EarthLink Inc. works, The Inquirer asked Villanova University professor and wireless expert Sarvesh Kulkarni how to go about testing it.

Kulkarni recommended trying to connect to the network from at least 10 locations, making sure to include the center of the coverage area, where online traffic would be most intense, and the edges, where there are fewer transmitters.

Laptops in hand, reporters Miriam Hill and Joseph Galante ventured into the 15-square-mile EarthLink Wi-Fi test zone north of Center City. This is what they found:

The first hurdle was signing on. Galante was able to buy a $7.95 day pass quickly with no problems, other than a slightly slow connection.

Hill's was a different story. After buying the monthly service, an EarthLink representative said she should be able to use it within five minutes in outdoor locations. (They did not test indoor locations because it requires an extra piece of equipment and because it would be hard to test in enough locations.)

After trying several times over three days, Hill finally figured out that there was a misspelling in her EarthLink user name.

Spelling error identified, Hill quickly logged in, and within minutes was surfing and watching video with ease. For both reporters, the system worked beautifully - when it worked. That was about 20 of the 35 times they tried, though theirs was an unscientific test. (A test by an independent company found the system was available about 77 percent of the time.)

At Third Street and Hunting Park Avenue, Galante chatted on Gmail. But just a few blocks away, the system was too slow to do anything.

"Just enough signal to make you mad," he wrote in his notes.

But he also found several spots where EarthLink Wi-Fi downloaded material from the Internet at a speed of one megabit per second.

When the EarthLink signal was strong, both surfed and sent e-mail easily. Even video, which involves big files and requires a fast connection, worked well in several spots.

Some locations, however, were more like notspots than hot spots, with a signal too weak to connect to the Internet.

Other locations did little more than tease. On Girard Avenue, Hill tried to hook up to the system three times with no success, only to find a connection so strong on the fourth try that she watched several minutes of a Lost TV episode.

Signals can vary in wireless systems such as this one because they are vulnerable to interference from portable phones, weather and microwaves.

EarthLink help-desk employees were polite but not always able to provide answers. They usually picked up quickly, although Hill waited for 12 minutes on hold twice.

The Inquirer also checked in with a few customers. One, Laurie Phillips of Northern Liberties, was so frustrated by her experience with EarthLink that she switched to Comcast, even though it cost her 50 percent more. She said she never found a signal in her house and had to write a letter to EarthLink's chief financial officer to get a full refund. The help desk also transferred her repeatedly.

Don Berryman, who is heading the Philadelphia project for EarthLink, said Phillips' neighborhood had a marginal signal at the time she used the service.

The company has since added more transmitters throughout the city to improve signal quality. It also is offering a super-cheap rate of $6.95 per month for six months for customers who sign up by June 30. The standard rate is $21.95 a month, though low-income clients will pay only $11.

The $6.95 rate is aimed at encouraging people who may feel reluctant to try the new system, he said.

"We understand that there are going to be some issues with the network," Berryman said.

EarthLink suggested contacting another customer, Ken Goode, who lives near Temple University. Goode said he hooked up the system inside his house with no problem. He loves the service because it costs much less than what he was paying Comcast.

"You just read the directions and plug [the wireless modem] in," he said. "It's easy."- Miriam Hill and
Joseph Galante