EarthLink to Stop New Municipal Wi-Fi Programs Citing Lack of Profit

Citing the absence of an acceptable return on investment, Earthlink announced that they are halting all new (and not-yet-completed) municipal wi-fi projects, which presumably includes the problematic San Francisco project (in partnership with Google). I have two initial reactions:

First, this should be a warning to municipalities relying heavily on private companies to provide widespread and affordable wireless Internet access to its citizens. If we consider Internet access to be a public good that all people should have access to, we cannot leave it up to corporations who might cut and run once the profitability wanes. (This is a big issue, and I don’t have any solutions. But others are working on it.)

Second, I wonder how much the fact that Earthlink (and Google) have been heavily criticized regarding the privacy implications of these muni-wi-fi systems came into play. As recently as 10 days ago the ACLU of Northern California called for more privacy and free speech protections with Earthink’s plans for the San Francisco network. Did Earthlink realize that they couldn’t make enough money if they were forced to protect user privacy? (Earthlink has previously refused to answer questions about whether they track ISP traffic for marketing purposes, so we don’t really know how much of a “burden” protecting user privacy would have on their income statement.)

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