Kudos to the city of Philadelphia and to EarthLink for working out what seem to be the final details of their Wi-Fi operating agreement. Turns out that EarthLink will own, build, and maintain the 135-square-mile network, but the city will have some say in its operation.
This is the biggest step, I imagine, other than the physical implementation of the network, scheduled to happen over the next year. But now that they've agreed on the rules of the road, deployment may be a no-brainer. (That said, the City Council has yet to approve the final contract, so politics may yet intervene. But it appears that most of the city's politicians from the Mayor on down have supported this project since its inception in April 2005.)
Power-sharing by a public and private organization won't be easy, I can't imagine, with their completely different cultures, histories, and measures of success. But it's good for the citizens of Philadelphia that the two entities could agree on the particulars of this. When it's complete, it will be the largest municipal Wi-Fi network in the country, and it might be a model for others to follow.
The network will provide high-speed access to residents for around $20/month. No less critical is a promise of free training and computers for up to 10,000 families; working with local nonprofits and faith-based organizations and working with local banks to provide low-cost or no-cost computer loans. It's not just about the Internet, it's about trying to bridge the digital divide in multiple areas. There will be free wireless access in some city parks and other public spaces, and T-1 access and equipment will be offered to businesses.
The city's not paying a dime to get the network constructed, either. Instead, EarthLink is paying the city a fee to locate transmitters on light posts.
A 15-square-mile area will be the first test bed for the network and, assuming that goes well, the network should be finished by spring 2007.
It will be interesting to see how it all works out.