Philadelphia Free-for-all

The city—and CIO Dianah Neff—take on industry to launch WiFi network in a battle other municipalities are likely to face

Brotherly love isn’t the only thing heating up Philadelphia these days. Just ask the city’s CIO, Dianah Neff.

The city is on the front lines of a pitched battle between the telecommunications industry and municipal governments. Philadelphia is set to launch a citywide low-cost wireless network as an inexpensive way of giving Internet access to underserved communities.

With its Wireless Philadelphia initiative, the city expects to become the first major municipality in the nation to deploy WiFi citywide. The project calls for rolling out a mesh network based on the IEEE 802.11b/g standard. But representatives of the telecommunications industry argue not only that such initiatives will hamper technology and competition, but also that government-run networks will help only well-wired professionals—not the underprivileged.

No sooner did Philadelphia name members to the project’s executive committee last August than state legislators pushed through a bill to block the initiative.

“The wireless industry saw it as competition. We see it as choice,” Neff said.

The Pennsylvania Telecommunications Act, House Bill 30, had been lying dormant for 18 months, Neff said. “Then lo and behold, it gets passed right when the Philadelphia WiFi project is announced,” she said.

The act forbids any “political subdivision” or entity created by one—such as a local government or government-created nonprofit—from providing any telecommunications service to the public for a fee. At the time, Philadelphia’s plan was for free WiFi service, but the city also had said it might charge a small fee as it rolled out the network citywide.

By appealing to the network’s likely users, Philadelphia managed to negotiate a waiver of HB 30 for the city. “It was based on a grass-roots effort,” Neff said.

More than 3,000 people and businesses called or sent e-mail to Gov. Edward G. Rendell asking that the initiative go forward.

As a result, the city is set to begin work on Wireless Philadelphia this summer and finish by the end of next summer, Neff said.

A chief reason the city wants to run the project and not just buy service from a telecom carrier is that commercial wireless products lack many features planned for the Philadelphia WiFi project, she said.

For one, the city will put equipment and training into the homes of low-income and disadvantaged members of the community. “It’s a different niche, so it’s not true competition,” she said. “That’s what we thought.”

Wireless carriers disagree. And vendors have enlisted the help of state lawmakers. So far, 15 states have passed laws to limit government-sponsored WiFi projects.

Because of the pushback from industry, local governments across the country are looking to Philadelphia’s WiFi effort to learn how to navigate similar obstacles with their own municipal broadband projects.

Critics of municipal WiFi efforts contend the government-run projects tend to be far from the cutting edge.

A report issued last month, Not in the Public Interest—The Myth of Municipal WiFi Networks, discourses for 28 pages on “why municipal schemes to provide WiFi broadband service with public funds are ill-advised.”

The report was produced by the New Millenium Research Council, a subsidiary of Issue Dynamics Inc., a Washington consulting and public relations company whose clients include BellSouth Corp. of Atlanta, Comcast Corp. of Philadelphia, SBC Communications Inc. of San Antonio, Sprint Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc. of New York.

Although municipal WiFi efforts generally have good intentions, lack of a profit motive dulls the technology used and sets up a scenario where equipment quickly becomes obsolete, said Braden Cox, a contributor to the report and an adviser to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a public policy organization in Washington.

Neff said the city will avoid implementing outdated technology by not predetermining the final product. “Whether it’s WiFi, WiMax or a hybrid, that’s still to be decided,” she said.

The city estimates the cost of the project at $10 million. Although Philadelphia is ironing out the financial details, Neff does not expect the city to go it totally alone. They will quite likely hire vendors to build and run Philadelphia Wireless under a business plan developed by the city, she said.

Last year, Philadelphia started a pilot WiFi program with hot spots around the city, the first being at Love Park, followed by additional access points at Boat House Row, the Reading Terminal Market and other busy locations. About 1,200 people used the free WiFi in Love Park during the pilot’s first two months, Neff said.

For the test, Philadelphia used equipment from Tropos Networks Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif. Tropos is equipping the city with wireless routers that plug into streetlights. The sockets “draw about 20 watts, the amount of a night light,” Tropos president Ron Sege said.

City workers installed 10 units per square mile. Each installation takes about 15 minutes. “They go up really fast,” Sege said. “You don’t even need to understand how radio works.”

Cities provide water and electricity, he said, so why not WiFi? “Someday you’ll be able to switch on WiFi like you do a faucet for water.”

Lightning rod

Although its WiFi project has been attracting controversy like Ben Franklin’s kite attracted lightning, Philadelphia is not alone. Dozens of U.S. cities now offer some form of subsidized WiFi, or plan to. Among the municipal WiFi brethren are Atlanta, Baltimore, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Lexington, Ky., Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.

Cleveland’s WiFi project has managed to steer clear of most conflicts with local Internet service providers and telecom carriers.

“We’re not competing with them,” said Lev Gonick, who is spearheading OneCleveland’s WiFi project.

“It’s free,” said Gonick, vice president for IT services at Case Western Reserve University. “We’re fundamentally exercising our institutional rights to connect access points to fiber in universities and libraries.”

The Ohio city is funding its wireless access through organizations that include the university, the local Public Broadcasting Service affiliate and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Cleveland is testing multiple technologies for the project, including lamppost transmitters and wireless bridges to light up the area between buildings. The project is also adapting existing access points in universities and museums. OneCleveland has set up more than 1,400 hot spots throughout the city.

Chaska, Minn., home of one of the first municipally sponsored WiFi projects, has also managed to avoid most of the political hurdles, said Bradley Mayer, Chaska’s information systems manager.

The Minneapolis suburb began offering $15.95 monthly WiFi access to 2,000 of its citizens in November.

Why no vendor pushback? Because some service companies, including Time Warner Cable of Stamford, Conn., didn’t think the small town’s effort would succeed.

“A spokesperson from Time Warner Cable, one of the local providers, was quoted in a local paper saying, ‘It’s not going to work, so we don’t have to worry about it,’ ” Mayer said. “But it works well enough that we have 2,000 customers that probably used to be Time Warner’s customers.”

Chaska is using 250 Tropos nodes, all 802.11b, Mayer said. Most of the WiFi nodes are installed on city streetlights or other city electrical equipment

But at least one critic of municipal WiFi initiatives says that a prosperous town like Chaska makes an unsuitable poster child for WiFi as a means of bringing Internet access to the poor and disenfranchised.

Another of the NMRC report’s authors, David P. McClure, president and CEO of the U.S. Internet Industry Association, said Chaska’s contention that it began the project because it was underserved by broadband is preposterous. As “a suburb of Minneapolis-St. Paul, one of the ‘most wired’ cities in America,” Chaska is hardly underserved, McClure said.

Digital bridge

But Mayer said the core reason the city embarked on the WiFi project was to “bridge the digital divide. That’s what we’re doing here. There were options available ... but they cost $40 to $50 a month.”

“We wanted to give Internet access to everybody in the city,” he said. “More importantly, we wanted to provide service low-cost enough so that everybody from all walks of life could gain access to the system.”

McClure described municipal WiFi networks as a case of “the emperor not wearing clothes. These networks cannot live up to their billing. They are a taxpayer disaster.”


  • Government Innovation Awards
    Government Innovation Awards -

    Congratulations to the 2021 Rising Stars

    These early-career leaders already are having an outsized impact on government IT.

  • Acquisition
    Shutterstock ID 169474442 By Maxx-Studio

    The growing importance of GWACs

    One of the government's most popular methods for buying emerging technologies and critical IT services faces significant challenges in an ever-changing marketplace

Stay Connected