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Editorial: Wireless Philadelphia

Bye-bye, WiFi

In a city where more than half of the households aren't hooked up to the Internet, the demise of Philadelphia's ambitious effort to launch the nation's largest municipal wireless system is all the more disappointing.

No wonder officials at Wireless Philadelphia were holding out hope yesterday that an angel could be found to rescue the system.

As the nonprofit agency that provides computers and training to get low-income families on the low-cost system - bridging the so-called digital divide - Wireless Philadelphia vowed to keep pushing to save the network after EarthLink Inc., which built and runs the system, halts service.

Mayor Nutter was far less optimistic, pointing to a $3 million annual operating cost for the network, which, clearly, the city is in no position to take on.

The one bright spot, in fact, is that EarthLink - not city taxpayers - put up the multimillion-dollar investment to build the wireless fidelity (WiFi) system. Former Mayor John F. Street, a technology guru, negotiated the high-profile deal in an effort to blanket the city with an Internet signal.

The vision was there but the business plan was lacking. The system was built on schedule, but EarthLink was unable to sign up enough paying customers.

On top of that, the technical challenges of broadcasting the WiFi signal to customers' homes and offices led to reliability woes.

Sapping further energy from the project were the company's own financial troubles, which led EarthLink to announce its withdrawal from the municipal wireless field months ago.

Comcast and Verizon officials who fought municipal WiFi were right about its technological flaws. Street, though, was right in trying to create an affordable way for more Philadelphians to get online -

while also building a 21st-century information infrastructure worthy of a world-class city. That mission remains a laudable one.