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Is it Geek City Yet? Philadelphia, City-Wide Wi-Fi, and the Digital Inclusion Project

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When "no child left behind" becomes "no household without Internet access," how will cities be affected? Who foots the bill? And how does the mechanism of government keep from hopeless entanglement with the objectives of the telecom industry? Sheryl Simons presents a fascinating tale of one big city's quest for the future: Wireless Philadelphia.
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With great fanfare on August 25, 2004, Philadelphia's Mayor John Street announced that the city would make wireless access available throughout the city's entire 135 square miles. Summer 2006 was the projected completion of the network that would eventually create 6,000 new jobs. Charged with this daunting task was Diane Neff, newly appointed information technology czar, who, along with Temple, Drexel, and LaSalle Universities, devised the initial blueprint for "Wireless Philadelphia."

Although this auspicious launch stirred the imaginations of many, inevitably the march toward completion slowed; by April 2005, headlines updating its progress appeared well inside the Philadelphia Inquirer, rather than on the front page. What happened next is a cautionary tale of big-city politics, statewide maneuverings, telecom industry reaction, and the emergence of an unintended diamond in the rough—The Digital Inclusion Project.

The Goal Line Is in the Air

Among its other attributes, Philadelphia is noted for sports, history, food, music, medicine, education, and tourism—but not cutting-edge technology. In fact, the last great claim to technology fame was the invention of the UNIVAC, a room-sized computer created by engineers at the University of Pennsylvania, and UNIVAC celebrated its 50th anniversary milestone several years ago.

Yet technological prowess is a must, not only to attract corporations and jobs, but to compete effectively in a global economy. The Mayor knows this. Governor Edward Rendell—former mayor of Philadelphia—knows this. And companies such as Comcast and Verizon, major players in the communications industry, know this. Selling connectivity through broadband or DSL services is a major revenue stream for such companies. So when the Mayor stated his goal of low-cost citywide government-sponsored access with numerous, strategically placed free "hotspots," those in the connectivity business reacted badly—very badly.

According to the Philadelphia Weekly, 60% of Philadelphia's population is currently without Internet service, [1] placing the city 33rd on the list of wired (or wireless) cities. [2] On the list of innovative economies, it ranks 18th. [3] The cost of commercial services such as Comcast, which range upward to $55 per month, makes access unaffordable for most. A survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project revealed that 75% of families with incomes of $50,000 or above contracted for home-based broadband access. [4] But Wireless Philadelphia, with proposed antennas on nearby street and traffic light poles, would charge $16–$22 per month, with a sliding scale for low-income families.

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