Firm underestimated hardware it would take, Charleston official says

The city of Charleston plans to unplug its tiny patch of free wireless Internet service Wednesday, two years after it announced an ambitious plan to weave a blanket of cyber signals over the peninsula.

The city will terminate its contract with Widespread Access LLC, a Mount Pleasant telecommunications firm that pledged in September 2004 to build and pay for most of the so-called Wi-Fi infrastructure, in exchange for the right to sell faster Internet service to residents plugging into the signal.

Widespread Access underestimated how much hardware it would require to build the grid and did not have the financial capacity to see the project through, according to Ernest Andrade, the city economic development official in charge of the Wi-Fi initiative.

"The current project is not a failure," Andrade said. "Where it works, it works. It just hasn't been expanded."

Widespread Access could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Evening Post Publishing Co., which owns The Post and Courier, has also cut ties to the project, said Ward Lassoe, president of the media firm's digital division. Evening Post was a silent partner with Widespread Access, investing about $200,000 in exchange for the right to develop the online page that Web surfers first see when signing on to the network.

The two companies have collectively spent about $500,000 on the Wi-Fi venture, according to Lassoe.

The city's plan originally was pitched as a bold initiative to attract and empower small businesses and close the so-called digital divide by plugging poor households into the Internet. Its contract with Widespread Access - which lined up private-sector financing for a proposed public service - was considered to be at the industry vanguard and was held up as a model for other communities nationwide.

But spreading an Internet signal through dense peninsula neighborhoods would require three times as many antennas as Widespread Access first estimated, according to Andrade, and city planners took issue with some of the company's antennas. The streets around the Medical University of South Carolina are the only areas that have the signal, and the network is tapped into only about 200 times a day.

Communities nationwide have struggled with similar problems. Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, recently called municipal Wi-Fi "telecom's Bay of Pigs" in an article he wrote for Slate.com. Wu noted that ambitious public Internet projects in a number of cities have died when a private-sector provider ran into trouble.

"We were a little overly optimistic," Lassoe said. "... Unfortunately, we're in good company."

Early this year, the city started talking to two out-of-state firms about picking up the Wi-Fi project where it had sputtered to a stop. Andrade said Thursday that those negotiations are continuing, though a new service provider will likely charge for the signal.

"My objectives haven't changed a bit," he said. "We're not going to abandon something that holds such promise."