Earthlost in Philadelphia

William Penn, about as alive and kicking as Wireless Philadelphia

William Penn, about as alive and kicking as Wireless Philadelphia

Original post:   15 May 2008.
One of the big pieces of news this week is the final implosion of “Wireless Philadelphia“, the hapless attempt by Earthlink to provide free citywide wi-fi in Philadelphia. Earthlink is walking away and abandoning the network. (Oh, you’ll hear various efforts to try and keep it alive, but they are like connecting electrical cables to a cadaver.) The administration of former Mayor John Street eagerly pursued this initiative, hoping, among other things, to “bridge the digital divide” bringing the Internet to people in Philadelphia who did not have or were unable to afford access. Why didn’t it work?
•   “Free”. Wi-Fi ain’t free. It requires radios on streetlights, wires to at least some of those radios connecting them together and to the Internet, paying for Internet access, someone to operate and fix it and help folks use it. So who pays for all this? BTSOM (beats the stuffing out of me). I’ve looked at this again and again in Seattle with a variety of possible partners. There never was a business model for the combination of “free” and “wi-fi” and “citywide”.
•   Coverage. Gee, radio waves don’t always go through walls, as anyone with a cell phone knows. Especially when those walls are brick (and there is a bit of brick in Philly). In fact, when spring comes and leaves sprout on trees, signals often don’t even go through the new foliage very well. Yet this network was expected to reach everyone living in Philly. Amazing how the laws of physics work, despite the best efforts of tech executives and politicians.
•   Citywide. Wi-Fi might make sense in certain neighborhoods, especially business districts where chambers of commerce or neighborhood businesses might pay for it for their own use or to bring customers to the area. But Citywide?
•   Bridging the digital divide. If you can’t afford Internet access, how are you going to afford a computer or a wi-fi card to use the Internet? Or if someone gets you all of the above, how do you learn to use it or who do you call when something breaks? Community technology centers and libraries are much better models for providing access.
On the other hand, at least Philly City government didn’t put a lot of their own skin (i.e. taxpayer dollars) into this game, and Mayor Nutter’s administration can rightfully drop the blame for the implosion on his predecessor. But certainly there was a lot of wasted employee time, weeping and gnashing of teeth as this drama unfolded and then … ah … “folded”.
Governing's Managing Technology 2008 Conference in SeattleSo, does this (along with other failures or pending failures in Houston New Orleans, Portland and so forth) mark the ultimate death of municipal wi-fi? Probably not. There may be models which work. Corpus Christi appears to have found one. And I’ll be chairing a panel on municipal wireless at Governing Magazine’s “Managing Technology” conference here in Seattle on May 29th. Folks from Tucson and Minneapolis will be sharing their success stories and I’ll try to add those stories to this blog in late May.

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Filed under government, wi-fi

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