Time for Wi-Fi to sink or sync

Is Philadelphia about to become a wireless heaven, filled with laptop-wielding residents connecting to the Internet on the cheap from home or around town?

Or is the dream announced almost three years ago by Mayor Street to make Philadelphia a "hot city" just that - a dream whose reality will only disappoint?

We're about to find out.

The City of Philadelphia and EarthLink Inc., the company hired to build the citywide wireless network, recently said testing of a 15-square-mile pilot project had gone well enough that they were forging ahead with plans to expand it over the city's full 135 square miles.

Lately, EarthLink has been trumpeting the availability of its Wi-Fi (short for Wireless Fidelity and a play on Hi-Fi) service in ads on SEPTA buses and door hangers in parts of the city where it is already available.

About 385 U.S. cities or regions have or have announced citywide or partial systems, according to the industry Web site MuniWireless.

But the world is watching Philadelphia, the largest American city to attempt such a project. EarthLink expects to have 5,000 subscribers by July, and 12,000 by year's end.

"All eyes are on that network," said Phil Belanger, managing director at Novarum, a consulting company for the wireless-broadband industry.

His company, based in Akron, Ohio, has tested the wireless systems in Philadelphia and other cities to report on how the technology is performing. Belanger says EarthLink is not a client.

His verdict: "It is actually one of the better-performing metro Wi-Fi networks deployed so far," he said in a recent blog.

Philadelphia's system performed relatively well in Novarum's tests, meeting promised download speeds. The system was available in about 74 percent of locations tested, making it the second-most-reliable municipal system of the 20 Novarum tested. St. Cloud, Fla., was the most available, at 100 percent, but it is a smaller system in a flat area with few tall buildings, making transmission easier.

Novarum tested the systems in December and again in May. It found Philadelphia's availability had improved significantly from December, when the system was available at only half of tested locations using a notebook computer with a built-in Wi-Fi connection.

Novarum found that EarthLink had increased the number of access nodes - pieces of equipment mounted on light poles throughout the city that transmit the Wi-Fi signal - per square mile from 31 to 47 between May and December, improving performance.

"It appears that EarthLink has been investing to improve the service quality by adding more nodes," Belanger said.

In some places, download speeds were even higher than the 1 megabit per second that EarthLink is promising, he said.

But the performance was good only by the standards of municipal wireless, a new, untested technology.

Wireless has become almost ubiquitous in coffee shops and in other public locations. But those systems work in small spaces where a single wireless access point provides coverage to users within a limited area.

Generating reliability over a large area requires placing and connecting hundreds, or even thousands, of access points, creating what is known as a mesh network. The signal must be retransmitted from access point to access point repeatedly, and risks being dropped without warning.

"There is no prior experience in deploying and managing meshes of this size. The deployer will learn as they go," said Sarvesh Kulkarni, a wireless expert and assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Villanova University.

He said early users of the system might spend more time talking to the help desk as EarthLink works out the kinks than will later adopters.

(Interested customers may want to buy a one- or three-day pass to test the system. Passes are available at http://home.feather.net or by calling 1-866-433-9434. Short-term passes work best outdoors. Indoor locations work better with a wireless modem available only to monthly customers.)

Municipal wireless systems also are vulnerable to interference from microwaves, portable phones and weather patterns.

Anthony Townsend, research director at the Institute for the Future, a think tank, believes the hurdles are simply too high for the technology to work well.

"What's happening with these projects now is that it's harder to do than they originally thought," Townsend said.

He likes Wi-Fi, he said, and in a previous job worked to promote wireless hot spots in parks and other places where the public can use them. He just does not think Wi-Fi will work well over a large area where bigger providers such as Verizon Communications Inc. and Comcast Corp. already offer Internet service.

"It's not the wrong idea," Townsend said. "It's just that Wi-Fi is turning out to be much more time-consuming and expensive than they thought."

In some cities, including Portland, Ore., and Lompoc, Calif., users have had trouble getting signals indoors. EarthLink says that customers who get the wireless modem it recommends should get a good signal inside their homes.

Supporters of Muni Wi-Fi say doubters are simply reading too much into the growing pains of a new technology.

Don Berryman, who is overseeing the Philadelphia effort for EarthLink, said the company had worked hard to identify and fix problems.

"To me, the network is going to be an evolution," he said. He said EarthLink had built the system with 42 nodes, or retransmitters, per square mile, about double the number in cities where customers have experienced problems getting signals indoors.

Esme Vos, founder of MuniWireless, a Web site, pointed out that phone and cable Internet connections often forced users to spend hours on the phone with the help desk when they were introduced - and sometimes still do.

Philadelphia has focused its efforts on providing inexpensive wireless, especially to low-income residents, to help bridge the so-called digital divide.

But Vos said he thought cities should not overlook other uses - especially remote meter reading, keeping building inspectors and other government employees connected to the office while in the field, and other options that help recoup investment costs more quickly.

Philadelphia's chief information officer, Terry Phillis, said the city was eager to add such services. But its first priority was making sure the test area worked. An independent company hired by the city - Uptown Services, of Boulder, Colo. - found the network working well enough to start expanding it. The next step will be determining how the city can make the best use of the system.

"There are so many opportunities we can take advantage of," Phillis said, "but we're just starting to get into that."


Contact staff writer Miriam Hill at 215-854-5520 or hillmb@phillynews.com.