Monday, January 24, 2005

The Wiring (sort-of) of Philadelphia

The Philadelphia Weekly discusses the Street effort to enmesh the entire city with Wi-fi internet access. (For those who were unaware: The City announced plans to provide city-wide wireless internet access. Verizon then tried to pass a state bill to quash the abilities of municipalities to do so. The end result was that the bill passed, but with a Philly exemption.)

From the article:

Wi-Fi can be rolled out with gigabyte speed, Neff says. (A skeleton crew deployed the West Powelton network, which covers a five-block radius, in two months.)

Neff expects Street to sign off on a final plan next month. By March 1 the city can start soliciting bids from private companies interested in building, operating and maintaining the system. Neff hopes to be negotiating contracts 60 days later.

Over the summer individual Wi-Fi cells will be mounted on streetlights, creating a wireless mesh. It should cost about $10 million to complete the city's wireless infrastructure, and Neff estimates it will require $1.5 million to operate the system annually. Basic technical support--taking calls from users when they reset passwords or experience signal failure--is a huge financial drain.
So, it will cost money. But, generally, so does everything important. The city and Mayor Street are thinking ahead here, and they should be applauded for doing so. This could be a huge boon to the City, and a huge step in bridging the so-called digital divide that is only growing larger.

What, for example, can better and broader internet access do? How about this:

For instance, 13,000 people signed up to receive federal earned income tax credits after learning about it on Beehive. In the past six months 7,000 people enrolled their kids in state Children's Health Insurance Programs after learning about them on Beehive. And some 10,000 people have written business plans using a tool on the website.
I don’t know whether whom they interviewed was an unrepresentative sample, but I was very surprised at the negativity some of the people interviewed. For example:

And some media activists are as enthusiastic about government-sponsored Wi-Fi as they are about spam and pop-up ads. These critics contend that community wireless initiatives, like the one in West Powelton, provide greater benefits because they allow local residents to tailor the systems to their particular needs.

Instead of spending $10 million to build a citywide infrastructure, community organizations should assess their needs and design their own networks accordingly, says Anthony Townsend, an urban planning professor at New York University.

"It's paternalistic for City Hall to determine what's best for neighborhoods, when each has its own needs," says Townsend, a co-founder of NYCwireless. His volunteer group built popular community Wi-Fi networks throughout Manhattan, and teaches others how to set up public hotspots, or locations for wirelessly logging onto the Web. (Last year the Public Internet Project mapped more than 13,000 places in Manhattan where signals from home or business wireless connections could be "borrowed.")

Townsend speculates that Philadelphia will invest millions of taxpayer dollars to build a wireless backbone--only to ultimately hand the network over to rich telecom companies. "The big ISPs won't build in poor neighborhoods, so what Philly is doing is subsidizing private companies," he says.

So, the fact that the city of Philadelphia is actually taking some initiative, and going to provide affordable internet access (under $20 per month) to the hundreds of thousands who are priced out of high-speed access is a bad thing? Say what?

It is bizarre to me that a so-called activist does not see that there are certain times the free market will not equitably serve the whole public. Yes, the private companies may not be building these technologies in the inner-city. So, as a result, the City is going to make up for that gap, and do it in a way that is economically smart and feasible. (I certainly would sign up with them for 20 bucks a month.) The winners will be the people of Philadelphia. It is wonderful what the people in Powelton did, building their own small network. But that simply is not happening in the rest of the city. The bizarre attitude that this is a bad thing makes as much sense as Rush Limbaugh’s criticism of Donovan McNabb.

In fact, I think Mayor Street and Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas should try and think even bigger here. For example, in the 21st century, a child simply must have internet access to succeed. The amount of information that is available, and the simple self-learning that goes on when children use computers is vital to help kids develop skills that they will need to succeed later in life.

So, if I was the Mayor, here is what I would do: Go to all the big foundations (Ford, Pew, etc), as well as tech companies known for some level of charitable giving (Microsoft, Dell, Google) and come up with a plan to get computers into 20,000 of the 50,000 homes in Philadelphia that have at least one poor child. How could this be done? Well, you can provide a basic, capable computer that can surf the net, use Microsoft Word, etc, for 300 dollars. What if these foundations promised a $150 subsidy to split the cost with these households? Could they collectively come up with 3 million to make it happen? They are spending tens of millions on the Barnes museum, so I would hope they could be persuaded.

I know it sounds pie-in-the-sky, but think of it: You could create a whole generation of kids in Philly that are technologically savvy. On the streets of North Philly may live the next Michael Dell or Bill Gates. And for companies like Dell and Microsoft, you get great publicity, and you are creating a whole series of future customers. (And, in fact, you could employ high schoolers in Philly to makes some of those computers. That idea is not very “out there” because there used to be high schools that actually did just that.)

Will it happen? Probably not. Could it? I think so. And the result would be powerful.


At 6:55 PM, Blogger Charles said...

I think that the whole problem with this wireless thing is that it will hit the poor and working class communities, the ones who need it the most, last. People will make the argument that we need more tourism in Center City and better commerce, and bla bla bla. But I also think that it has to do with income. I mean do you really think that Germantown will get this before West Mt. Airy? North Philly before Center City? I honestly don’t think so.

I’m all for it, but I think that a few lucky young people who live in Center City (cough cough) will benefit first, and then it will take a long while for this thing to actually start bridging the digital divide.

At 8:23 PM, Blogger DanielUA said...

I hear the concerns. That said, I think it all gets rolled out at once. The problem, of course, is that thousands upon thousands of Philly homes do not have computers... Which is why we have to find a way to make Philly a City where just like everyone has a TV, everyone has a computer.

At 6:21 PM, Blogger LA said...

Two things:
1. I think it's a great idea for the city to really work to make sure that every household has a working computer and internet access. That would really do wonders for our city. Keep the ideas coming, DanUA.
2. Given that our city is almost entirely run on patronage, I have a hard time not letting my cynicism overpower my civic pride when our corrupt city starts a major project like this. Comcast doesn't object to the plan, which is sort of disconcerting. Accd to a recent Inky article, Comcast doesn't see it as competing with their service -- that scares me. Also, Philadelphia has such a terrible record of stewardship of the public airwaves already. We are, afterall, the largest city without and public access television, despite the fact that it's part of the 1983 law that allows Comcast to provide cable tv over city-owned air. So, I guess the general pay-to-play status of Philly projects added to the involvement of Comcast makes me think that this will just be another opportunity for the city to give over control of a new utility to a big hearless corporation (see the post above for what happens when public utilities do not have proper govt. oversight).

At 10:23 AM, Blogger DanielUA said...

Was there a reason listed Comcast did not see the City as a competitor? I ask because Verizon sure did... I suspect (which is somewhat confirmed by their upcoming phone service that will actually be more expensive) that Comcast is figuring that it will get more and more customers who want all the frills and benefits that go along with their service, and they may not be competing for the same customer base as the City, but that is just speculation.

As for the stewardship of the airwaves... Yeah, Philly has sucked on that one. But, the beauty of the internet is that unlike one public access channel, it is impossible to contain. We will see how it all unfolds...

At 8:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I sort of got taken out of context. I think Philly should fund wireless projects, but I'd like to see some details...

How about taking the $10 million and funding a variety of community groups to pursue their own wireless projects?

-Anthony Townsend

At 12:23 PM, Blogger DanielUA said...


It is not as if the City would determine what web-sites people can check out. I have would have no problem with the City giving seed money to local community groups to start local homepages, etc. But as for the actual installation of the City-wide network, economies of scale demand that the City do the physical work. Plus, not all communties are organizaized like Powelton, or some of the places you have worked in NYC. I don't want some people penalized because they don't have the community infrastrucutre to get things done. This is going to an important city-wide good, not one just available to well-organized neighborhoods (like mine).


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