EarthLink steers clear of Silicon Valley wireless

EarthLink Inc., which has been chosen to deliver municipal wireless services in San Francisco, Philadelphia and other cities, is staying out of the running for a network that would cover about 1,500 square miles (3,900 square kilometers) around Silicon Valley.

The Wireless Silicon Valley Task Force had received seven responses to its RFP (request for proposals) by its submission deadline Friday, said Seth Fearey, the project leader for Wireless Silicon Valley, as the project is called. EarthLink wasn't one of them.

The Atlanta Internet service provider told the Wireless Silicon Valley Task Force in a letter that it didn't submit a plan because it didn't support the idea of a free service, Fearey said. However, though the task force is hoping for a free or low-cost component, the RFP didn't mandate it, according to Fearey.

"We were hoping that the vendors would tell us what makes good business sense," Fearey said. The RFP also didn't prescribe a particular technology. It did ask the vendors to pay the capital cost of the network, which has been estimated at US$200 million.

The eventual provider of the service will be able to use city resources, such as light poles, to deliver the wireless services. Some of these services might be free to the general public, but others could be revenue generators for the winning bidder.

EarthLink sat out the Silicon Valley project partly because the organizers had said proposals with a free component would have an edge, said Cole Reinwand, vice president of product strategy and marketing at EarthLink. The company sees any free business model as "significantly challenged." Another key factor was the low density of housing in much of the area, which would make it hard to offer a viable wireless alternative to DSL (digital subscriber line) and cable modem service, Reinwand said. In addition, EarthLink would have to negotiate separately with every city in the coverage area, he said. The company would rather come into Silicon Valley by itself.

"Ultimately, each city is probably going to assess the responses (to the RFP) ... and look at that among other solutions in the marketplace," Reinwand said.

The task force hasn't yet opened the proposals because it is still putting together a review committee, which Fearey expects will convene within a week. The following vendors and consortia responded to the RFP:

- Azulstar Inc., Cisco Systems Inc., IBM Corp. and SeaKay Inc.

- Blue Horizon Group, in San Francisco

- Community Wireless, in Palo Alto, California

- Fire 2 Wire and Ubiquity Broadband Communities, in Carmel, California

- MetroFi Inc., in Mountain View, California

- NextWLAN Corp., in Los Gatos, California

- VeriLAN, in Portland, Oregon

The group expects to come up with a short list of finalists by the end of this month and announce a winner in early September. Negotiations with that winner will follow, Fearey said. He declined to predict when the network might go live. It took Google Inc. about six months to build a wireless system around Mountain View and that network isn't yet open to the public, he said. The Silicon Valley system will come in phases, Fearey said.

The proposed network would stretch from Daly City, just south of San Francisco, to Santa Cruz about 100 miles to the south. On the west it would reach the ocean in the town of Pacifica and to the east it would stretch as far as Fremont, on the east side of San Francisco Bay.

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