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Meir Rinde

 

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Ill Communication

Many early Wireless Philadelphia subscribers report weak signals.

 

By Meir Rinde

July 25, 2007

 

The citywide wireless network Mayor Street’s been vowing to build for three years is finally here. Or at least parts of it are. A map of the network shows it covers Center City, most of West Philadelphia, and many of the city’s northern and southern neighborhoods, with complete coverage expected by the end of October.

In theory, anyone in those areas can turn on their Wi-Fi-equipped computer and connect to the network. But the reality can be a little more complicated, as a number of subscribers have discovered.

Ken Jones’ initial excitement faded when he tried to use the Wi-Fi signal booster sent to subscribers. Jones, a small-business owner who lives in Brewerytown, wrote on Phillyblog last month that no matter where he put the signal booster he still couldn’t get a signal on his computer.

“After two hours of going all over the house—up and down, round and round … I came to the conclusion, ‘It’s the network,’” he wrote. “I went to my truck and pulled off my 40-foot ladder. Then I extended the ladder enough to get on my roof. Touchdown!”

After installing the signal booster on the roof and rigging a shelter to protect it from the rain, Jones returned to his PC and found it was finally getting a signal, though only a weak one—four bars out of a possible 20.

“I still get a very weak signal 90 percent of the time,” Jones said last week. “I would never recommend this service to anyone.”

Other users were less intrepid, simply canceling service when they couldn’t get a reliable signal. Some prospective subscribers have been unwilling to gamble on signal that their computers otherwise barely detect.

Still others have had questions about the service but found customer support at EarthLink, the company that’s building and running the network, less than helpful.

 

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To be fair, complaints about Internet providers are common. And hundreds of people—if not more—are apparently using the network successfully, though EarthLink won’t release figures.

Wireless Philadelphia, the nonprofit overseeing the network, says it has signed up 150 people through its Digital Inclusion program, which provides low-income households with computers and training, and says another 400 to 500 are on the way.

But high expectations for the network seem to have sharpened the disappointment of those who’ve struggled to use it. Nationally, the network is unprecedented in the size and coverage promised, and if it works as advertised, it’ll provide a welcome alternative to higher priced Comcast Cable and Verizon DSL, giving users Internet access for around $19.95 a month (though in some cases at lower speeds).

Low-income households pay only $9.95—assuming they can get reception in their homes.

“It bums me out, because I love the idea of wireless throughout the city—all the advantages of the Internet available to everyone through subsidizing,” wrote another Phillyblog poster, who reported repeated signal dropouts after subscribing.

“I just don’t see how it can work from a [business] perspective if they don’t have dependable service to appeal to people who can choose to pay the extra $30 a month for cable or DSL.”

The city’s banking on the network’s success to boost its self-image and build a profile as a forward-thinking, well-run place, says Joshua Breitbart, a media access advocate and former Philadelphia resident.

“Obviously, Philadelphia has that image of, ‘SEPTA: We’re getting there,’” he says. “If that’s the image this network gets, that’s going to be a problem, especially because this is a service being marketed to poor people. If it gets that image, it’s a terrible outcome, considering all the potential.”

 

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Success is also crucial to EarthLink, which made its name in dial-up Internet, an increasingly obsolete technology. In the last year the company has begun losing money as it invests millions on new wireless networks.

In Philadelphia EarthLink is installing thousands of Wi-Fi transmitters on light poles, and to create acceptable signal strength it has had to put in at least 20 percent more than expected, leading to higher costs. The company said in April it wasn’t completely sure its municipal networks would be profitable, and would halve its spending on them.

At the same time EarthLink maintains the Philadelphia build-out is going well, despite isolated problems.

“We’ve had some instances where a customer called up, ordered service and the service wasn’t what they expected,” says Tom Cooper, the general manager for the company’s wireless effort in Philadelphia. “We added to our maintenance mode, and just added more [transmitter] radios to cover the area.”

Wireless Philadelphia admits reception is spotty in places, while pledging that the signal boosters really do help. The organization also points out that dissatisfied users have 30 days to cancel their accounts, although some former subscribers claim they’ve had to fight to avoid wrongly assessed $70 cancellation penalties.

Wireless Philadelphia CEO Greg Goldman urges patience, and says his organization and EarthLink will investigate any connection problems reported to them.

“It’s exciting to be at the forefront of brand-new technology, but it does mean we’re the people trying it out for the first time,” he says. “We all want this thing to work. It’s going to take a little time to work out some bugs and make it what we really believe it can be.” ●

 

Meir Rinde is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. Comments on this story can be sent to letters@philadelphiaweekly.com.

 

The story is also HERE in the Philadelphia Weekly archive.