During the last six months, the prospects for delivering free high-speed wireless Internet service throughout metropolitan areas went from a sure bet to a sucker bet.
Even as Los Angeles explores building a free or low-cost citywide Wi-Fi system, cities such as San Francisco, Chicago and Houston are delaying or pulling the plug on similar plans.
The catalyst for the sudden retrenchment came last month when Internet service provider EarthLink Inc., the nation's largest builder of municipal Wi-Fi networks, said it was halting work on such projects and bailing out of some contracts as part of a massive corporate restructuring.
The Atlanta company plans to complete construction in Anaheim and Philadelphia, the nation's first major city to embrace broadband wireless, and operate those and a few other existing locations.
But EarthLink is stopping all new projects until it figures out a way to make money.
Offering wireless Internet service for free is a business model that is "simply unworkable," EarthLink Chief Executive Rolla Huff said.
"None of this should be a surprise," Craig Moffett, a cable TV industry analyst, wrote in a recent report. "Free may be hard to compete with, but it's also a tough way to make any money."
But don't expect cities to pull out completely, industry analysts said.
With more Wi-Fi products coming on the scene -- such as T-Mobile USA's Wi-Fi cellphones and Apple Inc.'s iPhone and new iPod Touch -- demand for citywide wireless broadband connections should grow. Wi-Fi networks are much faster, more efficient and cheaper to build and operate than cellular systems.
"We've gone from one end of the hype meter to the other," said Craig Settles, an Oakland-based author and communications industry consultant. "We'll balance this out sooner or later."
Los Angeles may well become the city to watch as it goes through a laborious process to determine whether a wireless broadband network is needed -- and how the service would pay for itself.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa outlined plans in February to blanket Los Angeles with wireless Internet access that people could use for free or for a small monthly subscription.
The city's Information Technology Agency, which heads the Wi-Fi initiative, hired consulting firm Civitium in June to conduct a feasibility study.
The study, expected to be delivered to the mayor and the City Council in December, is being built on information from meetings with schools, hospitals, businesses, consumer groups, focus groups and other city agencies.
The agency is holding a public hearing about the initiative tonight at the Van Nuys Civic Center and another Thursday night at the DWP headquarters in downtown L.A. Both are at 6:30.
Civitium also is taking stock of the city's assets, including buildings, towers, light poles and other structures where wireless antennas could be installed. A key asset is 651 miles of fiber optic cable that could be used for important backhaul of Internet voice and data.
The firm also is trying to figure out how big a tenant the city might be on the network. Los Angeles could use wireless communications not only for emergency personnel but also for workers such as building code enforcers who can deliver reports from a work site rather than drive into an office. A wireless network also could link to cameras to help monitor traffic and remotely read utility and parking meters.
"So far, and we don't have all the results yet, it's looking like there's a need in public safety and in making the government more efficient," said Randi Levin, the city agency's general manager.
Levin said a wireless network would help the city get more information to residents and provide more self-service options for residents to deal with their local government.
Mark P. Wolf, the agency's assistant general manager running the daily research, said there was "definitely strong support" from small businesses, in particular, that can't get conventional land-line Internet service or are paying high prices. On its municipal projects, EarthLink typically charges about $22 a month for premium fast wireless service -- half the price charged by land-line providers for similar speeds.
A slower version designed for lower-income residents generally ranges from free to $10 a month.
"L.A. is in a good position to step back and see what the market is and see what assets they have and decide how to move forward," said Civitium senior partner Dianah Neff, a former Philadelphia technology executive who helped start that city's network.
Bridging the digital divide between those who can afford cable or phone connections and those who can't has long been a key argument in favor of muni wireless systems -- and for giving a level of service at no charge.