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Once-Doomed, NAC Revives Philadelphia's Wi-Fi Network

The original project ran into financing problems, and EarthLink pulled out of the effort after spending an estimated $20 million on its early deployment stage.
Facing an end-of-life fate days ago, Philadelphia's Wi-Fi network this week received a last-minute reprieve from a local investor group, which has taken over the operation of the struggling municipal wireless network.

The Network Acquisition Co. on Tuesday agreed to take over operation of the existing infrastructure put in place by EarthLink and pledged to enhance and expand the network. NAC, led by entrepreneur Rick Rasansky, said it plans to eventually bring free Wi-Fi service to Philadelphia citizens.

"We felt that the unique business and community opportunities that would be made possible by ubiquitous Wi-Fi coverage in Philadelphia more than justified the additional investment needed to complete the network build, so we set out to bring together a group of local investors and businesspeople to keep the vision of Wireless Philadelphia alive," Rasansky said in a statement.

The high-visibility Philadelphia network ran into financing problems, and EarthLink pulled out of the effort after spending an estimated $20 million on its early deployment stage. EarthLink has also been exiting its other Wi-Fi deployments as most municipal networks throughout the country have run into problems.

Several Philadelphians championed the rescue of the municipal network, including City Councilman Bill Green, who spearheaded much of the effort, as well as Mayor Michael Nutter.

"The gist of events is that Councilman Bill Green felt the network was a vital city asset that should be saved," said industry analyst Craig Settles. "So he initiated contact with potential investors a couple of days after the last deal imploded in May. The new private investors structured a deal in which they are creating a company to finish and operate the network, and hiring people to run it."

Rasansky, co-founder of the Mid-Atlantic chapter of networking group Mobile Monday, said the chapter invited Green to speak at its May meeting, and Green convinced the chapter that free city-wide Wi-Fi was a "must have."

The Philadelphia network was plagued by the same problems that have stalked many other municipal Wi-Fi networks -- cost overruns, spotty coverage, rapidly rising expenses, and unenthusiastic acceptance by paying subscribers.

Settles, who has written a book on the Philadelphia network titled Fighting The Good Fight For Municipal Wireless, pointed to two other recent successful municipal wireless stories -- one in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and another in Minneapolis. Business and government leaders in both communities have gotten behind their networks.