Mayor John Street’s has been known to carry his handheld computer with him wherever he goes so that he can check his e-mail or read the latest news when he isn’t in his office. If the mayor gets his way, all Philadelphians will have the option to do the same.
In an Aug. 25 press release, Street announced the appointment of a 14-member Wireless Philadelphia Committee that will study the feasibility of creating the world’s largest wireless “hot spot.” The plan would involve placing thousands of wireless cells atop lampposts, creating seamless Internet coverage over the entire city that would allow Philadelphians to log on to the Internet from virtually any outdoor location.
“If you’re out on your front porch with a laptop, you could dial in, register at no charge, and be able to access a high speed connection,” said Dianah Neff, the city’s chief information officer and chair of the committee. “It’s a technology whose time is here.”
The cachet the proposal could bring would be immeasurable to Philadelphia, especially at a time when the city is fighting a “brain drain” – a phenomenon in which young professionals are leaving the city in record numbers.
“What this initiative does is telegraph to everybody that technology matters here, that the future matters,” said Edward Schwartz, president of the Institute for Civic Values and a member of the Wireless committee.
Even Street has acknowledged that the city has lagged behind California’s Silicon Valley and New York’s Silicon Alley in being at the forefront of the constantly changing computer industry.
“Philadelphia hasn’t had a first technology since the Univac,” Street said in a statement, referring to the first computer designed for commercial use, which was built in a Philadelphia factory in 1951.
Philadelphia would be the largest city to implement a wireless network, but the town of Chaska, Minn., population 20,000, began installing wireless cells this summer. In addition, parts of Cleveland are now wireless, and Corpus Christi, Texas, offers free access to government employees.
Despite enthusiasm and almost uniform praise for the proposal, there are many issues that must be sorted out by the time the committee presents its findings in November.
Neff estimated the cost of installation for the system would be $10 million, and annual maintenance at $1.5 million, but Tim O’Rourke, vice president of computer services at Temple, has his doubts.
“I don’t see how they could pull it off for that little,” said O’Rourke, who noted that Temple has spent more than $300,000 on Wireless4Owls, the campus-wide wireless network. The system, which covers less than a quarter of a square mile, requires 33 separate cells and the coverage is not total. Philadelphia spans 135 square miles, so a simple extrapolation of costs arrives at a figure far more than $10 million.
The pace of technology and increasing demand for wireless access could bring costs down considerably in a short time, said O’Rourke, who compared the progress with that of cellular phones and computers.
The mayor’s press release said the program will be “cost-neutral,” meaning the funding will come from outside sources. One option being discussed is charging a monthly fee for use of the service. Chaska, Minn., which began offering citywide wireless Internet access earlier this year, charges $16 a month. At similar rates, only 8,000 Philadelphians would need to sign up in order to cover projected maintenance costs. Over 1,200 people currently use the wireless Internet in LOVE Park, which went into service June 15.
Whether the access is free or carries a monthly fee, it would be much less expensive than current high-speed Internet access, which can run from $40 to $60 a month. Wireless Philadelphia would be designed to be an open-air network, meaning it would only be available outside. However, there is no way to stop the signal from “bleeding” into people’s residences. With free or inexpensive access, many might stop subscribing to major providers. Comcast made more than $2 billion from its Internet service last year, and losing Philadelphia as a market would be considerable.
Asked about the effects the proposal would have on major providers, Neff said the committee was studying the issue and that they planned to meet with Comcast and Verizon. Philadelphia, which gave millions of dollars in tax breaks to Comcast in order to ensure their occupation of a proposed 60-story tower in Center City, would likely tread carefully to avoid alienating the media giant.
“Verizon is committed to supporting bold new ventures, and we expect to play a large part in the development and implementation of any groundbreaking technologies in the industry,” Verizon spokesperson Sharon Shaffer said.
Aside from the economic questions that come with this venture, the Wireless Philadelphia Committee must also discuss security issues.
“There is no way to ensure confidentiality,” said O’Rourke, who also estimated that Temple’s network encounters 10,000 viruses a day and regular attempts by hackers. “I would never put anything up I wouldn’t want someone to see or couldn’t bear to lose.”
Wireless4Owls has safeguards in place, including the need to register the user’s IP address and a proxy server that requires authentication. If such measures are not feasible for a network serving more than a million people, users would likely have no assurances of privacy.
Those who stand to gain the most from Street’s proposal are residents who cannot afford high-speed Internet. The closing of the “digital divide” was referenced repeatedly committee members as a key benefit from the program.
An aide to City Council member Darrell Clarke said the councilman was “elated” by the fact that North Philadelphia can share equally with the rest of the city in the mayor’s initiative, and that “Internet access should be as universally available as running water.”
“It’s a necessity,” O’Rourke said of Wireless4Owls. “Students demand it.”
But Temple’s wireless network may become obsolete if the mayor’s plan passes. In the press release, the city said the network will target students who live off campus.
Philadelphia will be “able to extend the wireless capability of college students and teachers,” said committee member Edward Schwartz.
For the time being, Temple plans to continue its upgrading and development of the network, starting with the conversion of the network to a newer, faster standard.
“I can’t sit back and wait for the city,” O’Rourke said. “We won’t slow down.”
Barry Petchesky can be reached at BarryAP@temple.edu.