Magazine article Information Today

Visions of a Wireless Philadelphia

Magazine article Information Today

Visions of a Wireless Philadelphia

Article excerpt

It's been 3 years since former Mayor John Street and former chief information officer (CIO) Dianah Neff made the announcement that Philadelphia would be the first major wireless city in the U.S. This innovative step was considered by many to be Street's legacy one day. For thousands of residents, the project was hope.

"Today is a great day for Philadelphia and the thousands of businesses and tens of thousands of families and children who will benefit from our Wireless initiative," said Street. "Just as roads and transportation were keys to our past, a digital infrastructure and wireless technology are keys to our future. To ensure Philadelphia is a 21st century city, we now must begin planning for the next generation."

Bold Plans, Big Dreams

This all-encompassing vision was supposed to be the model for the country to follow. But let's fast forward to the present: The network is in limbo, the provider stopped working on the project in March as it approached 80% completion, and the city still has not delivered on the promise of a wireless Philadelphia.

What happened? And what does the future hold for the 21st-century city? The mayor and Neff certainly had the plans in place and the right strategy for delivery. In 2003, the vision started with an executive planning committee. According to a report from Wireless Philadelphia (WP), a nonprofit organization created in spring 2005, the committee had 17 members, including the city CIO, Philadelphia school system CEO Paul Vallas and his CIO, and various community leaders, such as music producer Kenny Gamble. After careful research, the committee delivered its recommendations for a wireless city: WP would contract with a builder for the network, and that company would then run the operation. The service would be free or delivered at a low cost to residents. According to the plan, building costs would be recovered through a combination of donations solicited by WP, subscription fees, and leasing excess capacity to private providers (as most communications carriers and internet service providers do).


But several problems popped up along the way. Street's Executive Planning Committee recommended that WP should own and operate the network, according to a report from WP. Instead, in October 2005, WP chose to outsource the construction as well as ownership to EarthLink, the business unit of EarthLink Municipal Networks, an Atlanta-based ISP.


The plan stipulated that EarthLink would pay licensing fees to WP for the right to build and run the network, according to the report. According to the agreement EarthLink signed with the city, the company would pay $2 million up front and install network routers on 4,000 street lamps covering 135 square miles throughout the city.

After the EarthLink choice was finalized by the WP and city council in spring 2006, a Proof of Concept (POC) was planned, developed, and built. EarthLink developed the plan, and WP and the city council approved it as a first, or proving, step. On May 24, 2007, Street announced that WP had approved EarthLink's 15-square-mile POC test area, which was up and running in North Philadelphia. That phase took 9 months to finish. The entire 135-square-mile network was scheduled for completion in fall 2007.

"We are thrilled to expand the City's leadership position in using wireless technology to meet our people's needs and to enhance the City's services, visitor experience and business environment," said Street in a press release. …

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