The communications network EarthLink was for a time seen as a messiah of sorts for the free wireless movement. After spending millions to build several free networks in cities across the country, its efforts collapsed, and it went from messiah to pariah for its failed claims. The bad part was that EarthLink’s customers were suddenly faced with severance.
Some networks, such as Philadelphia's municipal WiFi, which was supposed to be shut down in June, have been saved by private investors. At the last minute, when dismantling was expected to commence, a group of investors known as the Network Acquisition Company bought the network, and have kept free WiFi flowing to parts of the city.
Now Google is partnering with I-Net Solutions, and some wireless equipment makers, to rescue another network which EarthLink left for dead. They are looking to help the city of Milpitas stay connected. Milpitas is home to SanDisk’s headquarters and the headquarters of several other major tech firms. Seagate, Symantec, Cisco, Maxtor, and many others have offices in the city as well.
When EarthLink first built the Milpitas network, it invested $1M USD in the infrastructure equipment. The network was actually not one of the free ones, but offered service on a subscription bases. Perhaps even more painful than the free network's collapse, when EarthLink's services fell apart, its paying customers lost their coverage. Since the fall of EarthLink, the network has been placed in city hands, and the city has been using it for fire and police traffic.
Under the new agreement, awaiting finalization, Google and others will run the nonprofit network, and will be contracted by the city. The network will provide free WiFi to both citizens and local government.
Google is a strong supporter of free WiFi efforts and it has some experience on the topic. Google already provides free access in the city of Mountain View, California, home of Google's headquarters. Google is lobbying the Federal Communications Commission to open up the "white space" spectrum between television channels. Google says this spectrum could be used to provide free or inexpensive broadband access. Microsoft founder Bill Gates has also backed this stance.
It believes that earlier free efforts like EarthLink's were not a bad idea in principle, but were, rather, sloppily implemented and ahead of their time. Says Derek Slater, a policy analyst for Google, in his blog, "Rather than prematurely writing off the idea, it's important to critically study municipal networks' successes and shortcomings. As we've written about before, America generally lags behind the rest of the developed world in broadband penetration and speeds, and we ought to be exploring many different solutions, both private and public, to bring fast, affordable Internet access to everyone."
Currently 80 percent of Americans go online, but broadband use is growing more slowly than expected.