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Editorial | It's Getting There

Wi-Fi baby steps

Philadelphia's effort to launch the nation's largest municipal wireless Internet network is suffering from birth pangs. Well,



This should come as a surprise only to any cubicle dweller who actually takes as gospel the help desk's promise that the office computers will be "back up in 10 minutes."

Since when has any endeavor this ambitious - the launch of a wireless network covering 135 square miles - ever come in on time and on budget?

As detailed last week at a Council hearing, the city's wireless project is as costly, complex and prone to glitches as any other large tech project.

EarthLink Inc., the firm hired to build the network, has spent at least one-third more than it anticipated to dot the city with wireless-fidelity (Wi-Fi) antennas.

Little wonder, that hasn't exactly thrilled the folks at EarthLink. They're retreating from the municipal wireless business elsewhere, but - for the record, at least - are continuing to build here.

While Philadelphia's system is roughly three-quarters complete, some early customers have had trouble connecting to the Internet.

Customer service at EarthLink clearly hasn't been up to par, but city officials have given assurances that these shortcomings are being addressed. Meeting a high standard for hand-holding is critical to attracting the thousands of paying customers needed to support the network.

Finally, the worthy goal of putting computers into the hands of 1,000 low-income Philadelphians and hooking them up to the Internet has not been met yet.

But more than 600 households have been equipped, and the nonprofit agency set up to bridge the so-called digital divide, Wireless Philadelphia, says it's pushing ahead enthusiastically with fund-raising to expand Internet access.

With all the skepticism expressed by Councilman Frank Rizzo at last week's hearing, it might appear that the Wi-Fi project is not only a failure but also a boondoggle sapping millions in city tax dollars.

Uh, no.

The key fact to remember is that the city's unique arrangement with EarthLink provides for the company - not taxpayers - to fund the construction of the network. In return, EarthLink gets to sell access to the network, whether to individuals or large institutions, such as universities.

In the event that EarthLink pulls out of the project at any point, the city will have risked little - other than getting egg on its face.

With the city's approval, EarthLink could find a buyer for the network. Only if the city decided to buy the network itself would taxpayers be on the hook - and Mayor-elect Michael Nutter should view that as a last resort.

The build-out of the system has had its problems, and there are clear challenges. But the chief proponent of the Wi-Fi effort, Mayor Street, wasn't being unreasonable last week when he noted that "people will have to be a little patient."

Street's vision for the network includes making use of wireless access to streamline City Hall services. It's also a potential vehicle to inform visitors and entertain tourists carrying iPhones and the like.

Beyond that, the city's entry into the Wi-Fi network has benefited city residents by putting downward pressure on prices for wired Internet service from Comcast Corp. and Verizon Communications.

Council's oversight of the Wi-Fi project is welcome. By failing to accept an invitation to appear at the hearing, EarthLink officials needlessly armed skeptics. But both the company and the Street administration have been put on notice that it's crucial to get the network up and running.