February 10, 2008
Citywide WiFi a no go for now

It was nice while it lasted.

EarthLink Inc., the company hired by the city of Houston to build a wireless network, plans to sell its municipal WiFi business, effectively pulling the plug on its project here.

While city officials will not say they are abandoning hope of eventually having a citywide network, they are moving ahead with an alternative plan to build free WiFi hotspots in 10 low-income neighborhoods.

The hotspot project will be funded with the $5 million that EarthLink paid the city months ago as a penalty for missing its initial deadline to begin the buildout. That payment bought EarthLink nine months to decide how to proceed and allows the company to back out altogether without further penalty.

The first neighborhood to benefit from free WiFi will be Gulfton, just outside the West Loop and south of the Southwest Freeway. It could be completed as early as this spring, said Nicole Robinson, the city's digital inclusion project director.

The city has not decided which other neighborhoods may also get free WiFi, she said.

"(Gulfton) is really kind of our pilot," Robinson said. "That may impact (which) neighborhoods that we implement it in."

There was a story about this hotspot project a few days ago in the Chron, but I've lost the link. From what I recall, it sounded like a pretty decent backup plan to the original vision, in that it would still bring WiFi to poorer neighborhoods - "bridging the digital divide", as the catchphrase goes. Having it paid for by the EarthLink default money isn't bad, either. Though I still think the original idea was a worthwhile one, maybe this is the best way to go now. It's not like it couldn't be added on to later, if that becomes feasible.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 10, 2008 to Elsewhere in Houston