Saturday, December 10, 2005

Philly gets closer to wireless

Just before Thanksgiving, PBS's News Hour with Jim Lehrer included a segment (by media correspondent Terence Smith) on Philadelphia's ambitious (for the U.S.) plans to connect up the entire city for wi-fi, or wireless internet access. Since I was staying with my wife's family in the Philly suburbs over Turkey Day--and I sort of consider Philadelphia to be my "home" city in the U.S.--I'm particularly interested in seeing how this pans out.

"Wireless Philadelphia" is the name of a project to build a wi-fi (wireless) system for the entire city "within a year". The system follows a universal access model, based on 3,000 small antennae distributed throughout 135 square miles of the city. When complete, you'll be able to get stable wireless access anywhere in the city, indoors or out. The project, which is being pushed hard by Mayor John Street, would make Philly the first "city of its size in the nation to have wireless broadband access available to everyone, regardless of income, at below- market prices." Mayor Street sees wi-fi as an essential utility that needs to be available at affordable rates--like water or electricity. The PBS piece notes that the plan is to offer the service to all of Philadelphia's 560,000 homes and 1.5 million inhabitants, at rates between $10 and $20 per month. The goal is to erase the so-called "digital divide," which separates poor Philadelphians from their richer and middle-class counterparts, the majority of whom now have wireless internet access at home. The city took a major step forward back in early October when it tapped Earthlink to complete the network. Wireless Philadelphia is thus a public-private partnership.

Of course, other private internet providers such as Comcast and Verizon are not happy about this. These companies (and Time Warner Cable, which provides my home wi fi access in Rochester) prefer to hook people up home by home rather than provide a broad-based, public system. These companies also prefer to charge $40-50 per month rather than $10-20 per month.

A battle is shaping up between these ISPs, who see a huge revenue generator being removed from them, and cities, who see cheap and universal wireless internet access to all citizens as an essential precondition for economic growth. A recent Washington Post piece quoted Ben Scott, a policy director of Free Press, "a nonprofit group that favors the development of municipal wireless," as follows:
    Increasingly, city officials view broadband in the 21st century the same way they viewed electricity 100 years ago and telephone service 50 years ago. It's falling into the category of a necessary and essential social service. . . . Cities see this as a way to spur economic growth: on the one hand to put tools in the hands of the underprivileged and give them a leg up, and on the other to provide incentives to small businesses to locate in these cities and to expand their operations.

Meanwhile, other countries, especially in Asia, push ahead with much more ambitious national wireless access plans. The U.S. strategy of leaving braodband access in the sole hands of private commercial interests has already seriously impeded growth in this sector. The result, according to a recent study reported in Slate.com ("The Fight Over Wireless"), is that "the United States has dropped to 16th in the percentage of citizens with access to broadband, trailing South Korea, Canada, Israel, and Japan, among others. There is consensus across the political spectrum that we need to go wireless—and fast." The trouble is, the federal government isn't doing much to push universal access. Most of the government impetus is coming from cities and states.

"Wireless Philadelphia" is a good start. But it's only a start. Let's hope it and programs like it don't get stymied by big cable companies and their friends in state legislatures and in Congress.

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