Students shouldn’t have any trouble finding a wireless Internet connection on Main Campus. That’s because it is a wireless hotspot, and soon the entire city of Philadelphia will be too.
Wireless Philadelphia, the nonprofit organization responsible for the construction of the nation’s first municipal wireless network, has partnered with EarthLink, a nationwide Internet service provider, to build and operate the 135-square-mile network.
The first test area of the wireless network, a 15-square-mile “proof-of-concept” zone that includes a large portion of North Philadelphia and Main Campus, was completed last month. After some testing, construction of the network throughout the city will continue.
The wireless network is expected to be completed by November, according to Wireless Philadelphia.
Though similar initiatives are being planned in several major U.S. cities, including Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston, Philadelphia could be the first city in the United States to offer municipal wireless Internet service to all of its residents. The success of the project could open up affordable Internet access to the 1.5 million residents in Philadelphia.
“I think we’re going to see the profusion
of Internet connectivity and a lot of other connections among people resulting from that,” said Greg Goldman, chief executive
officer of Wireless Philadelphia. “It’s really going to help make Philadelphia a much more attractive place for college students and graduates.”
In addition to saving money on Internet access, students are expected to benefit from the newfound mobility that citywide wireless Internet access will bring.
“Wireless networks enable students to work virtually anywhere they want,” said Bryan Palmer, a senior information science and technology major and president of Association for Computing Machines, a student organization.
“This could mean increased usage of outside-the-classroom activities, such as online learning, video conferencing
and other bandwidth-intensive applications.”
The network employs the preeminent Wi-Fi, or wireless fidelity, technology, which is used for connecting laptops, mobile devices and desktop computers to the Internet.
Commonly used in households and coffee shops for years, Wi-Fi is quickly becoming the preferred method for cities and towns to offer cheap Internet access to their residents.
“In general, this is going to make Philadelphia a much, much more connected city,” Goldman said. “Internet access
is going to be much more affordable for everyone.”
The Wireless Philadelphia project, which is considered to be the most ambitious of its kind in the country, began in 2005 with a proposed City Council bill. In spite of attempts by Comcast and Verizon to block the legislation, Mayor John Street endorsed the Wi-Fi plan and a contract with the Internet service provider EarthLink quickly followed.
The network will be composed of 4,500 wireless routers, which will be installed on top of city street lamps. Paid subscribers will be able to purchase their own modem and wireless router from EarthLink to ensure a strong signal indoors. Once signed up, residents will be able to log on to the Internet from anywhere in the city. Visitors can log on and will be able to purchase passes for periodic use.
Regular access to the network will cost subscribers $21.95 per month and will be available to low-income residents for $9.95. The discounted rate for low-income users is a part of the Digital Inclusion plan, which is expected to help open the Internet up to a whole new demographic of people who previously did not have access to it.
“I think the planned wireless access plans for low-income households are fantastic,” Palmer said. “They will offer affordable service to many residents that previously felt alienated by companies such as Verizon and Comcast that bombard them with sales pitches, inescapable contracts and TV-Internet combo packages that they don’t want.”
According to Goldman, fewe than half of Philadelphia households are connected to the Internet, which is a rate lower than most major U.S. cities.
“That’s a big, big disadvantage for everyone,” he said. Nationally, about 70 percent of adults use the Internet
on a regular basis, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
“[Wireless Philadelphia] is one of those great projects that have multiple benefits,” Goldman said. “And one of those benefits is that by creating this ubiquitous wireless Internet system, we’re able to offer affordable Internet access
to every household once this network is fully built.”
For now, residents and students within the proof-of-concept area can enjoy Internet connectivity for free, which also includes Love Park, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Penn’s Landing, and FDR Park.
John Paul Titlow can be reached at