Will the Third Time Be the Charm?

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For netizens of a certain age, the name “EarthLink” brings back memories of brighter days when we had real competition between ISPs. The latest incarnation for one of the original nationwide internet service providers is a new mobile service.

It’s not the first time EarthLink has tried this; its first attempt made me sad, long ago, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

The new EarthLink Mobile is a virtual operator that runs on someone else’s network, like all of the options in our Best Cheap Cell Phone Plans story. The company’s site says it’s “powered by Ultra Mobile,” which is a reseller of T-Mobile services. EarthLink sells OnePlus Nord N10 and N200 phones, which also signals that this is T-Mobile-based.

Plans are … fine. It’s $21.95 for 1GB of data; $34.95 for 5GB; and $53.95 for unlimited. That’s more expensive than Ultra Mobile’s own plans ($19 for 2GB and $49 for unlimited.) Other MVNOs have even better deals: you’ll pay $14 for 2GB at Tello and $15 for 5GB at US Mobile. Mostly, the service seems to be trading on EarthLink’s name. And what a name it is.


EarthLink’s Creation Story

Sky Dayton posing on a life-sized globe

Sky Dayton in 1997

EarthLink started in 1994 and was one of the major ISPs during the first internet boom of the late ’90s. It was founded by Sky Dayton, an early internet celebrity—the Elon Musk of 1995, if Elon Musk was 24 and a Scientologist.

It transitioned from dialup to DSL thanks to the 1996 regulation that let third-party providers use incumbent phone companies’ DSL lines. That plan—exist as a huge virtual operator reselling others’ physical lines—has continued. According to Fierce Telecom, EarthLink now sells home fiber riding on four different networks and it’s in 21 states, according to BroadbandNow.

According to a review from CNET and others, EarthLink doesn’t save you money over incumbent providers. Its strength is more in transparent pricing and a lack of data caps.

The company has dipped into mobile service twice before. In 2006, it formed a joint venture with Korea’s SK Telecom to create Helio, which was weird, cool, and ultimately disappointing. First billed as a wireless carrier for total geeks, it then repositioned itself as the “MySpace carrier” and sold several unique phones, most notably the dual-sliding Ocean. (Here’s my full review.)

Helio Ocean

Helio Ocean, EarthLink’s “MySpace Phone”

“Helio’s Ocean line, built by Pantech, pioneered the merger of social networking and multiple accounts into a single contact book, paving the way for popular features like Palm’s Synergy,” I wrote in 2010.

Helio was absorbed into Virgin Mobile and then died, and in 2012, EarthLink announced a partnership with Clearwire on 4G WiMAX service, a company and network that both were defunct by 2015. So, EarthLink isn’t known for making good mobile bets.

Mobile Web page

Remember when the mobile web looked like this?

This EarthLink isn’t that EarthLink, though, as the company was acquired in 2017 and then bought again in 2019 by a private venture capital firm. As new CEO Glenn Goad said in the Fierce Telecom story above, Earthlink’s plan now is to bring various different forms of wholesale internet to retail—landlines, fixed wireless, and now presumably mobile.

In a competitive MVNO world, though, EarthLink will have to bring more than a storied name to the table to succeed.

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