Live from Milpitas, Earthlink WiFi

Milpitas, an affluent small south Bay town, is proving easier to unwire than its big-city neighbor to the north, San Francisco. We took a trip down the 880 yesterday to watch what all the hoopla was about as Milpitas became among the first of the Bay Area’s so-called wireless cities. We witnessed a “wire-cutting” press conference, but at least on day one, the network itself was underwhelming.

Earthlink and Motorola execs, Tropos’ CEO Ron Sege, and the mayor of Milpitas were all there drumming up support for the new network. Earthlink hopes that Milpitas’ 10-square-mile network will be the proving point for its MuniFi service in the greater Bay Area. Particularly San Francisco, where negotiations for the city’s WiFi network have stalled.

It was interesting then, that Don Berryman, the guy in charge of MuniFi for Earthlink, said at the Milpitas press conference that the company was hoping to finish negotiations with the city of San Francisco this week, as soon as this Thursday. The next step after that is to introduce those plans to the board of supervisors either by the end of the year or in January. Good luck on that one.

Berryman also said that Earthlink would launch its New Orleans network tomorrow. That’s the network which is supposed to offer free service to New Orleans residents as long as their rebuilding effort continues. (Update: Here’s the official press release.)

Earthlink is getting good at making press conferences and “wire-cutting” ceremonies. Berryman even said at the Milpitas event that by the end of 2007 the company hoped to have 20 to 25 signed contracts with cities for WiFi networks. By the end of 2008, he hoped the number would be 40 to 45 contracts with cities.

But beyond projections and ambitions, we’ll see how popular and revenue-generating the networks are with residents, businesses and city workers. The Milpitas network cost a little over a million bucks to build. The city will use the network for public services and has already used it for the police and fire departments, including video surveillance and coordination of emergency response.

Getting residents to subscribe might be more difficult. I used the network on my laptop in a dozen different places around city hall, at shopping centers, and around main streets and found that the network was slow and the coverage was spotty. That was in the late afternoon (just after the press conference). I’m going to check it out later today and this week and see if I get different responses.

Earthlink is fine-tuning the service, and offering access in Milpitas for free for 30 days. Readers should check it out and give us your thoughts, and we’ll put together all your findings and reviews (good and bad) into a post on GigaOM.