The next time you check your e-mail, you could be doing it while sitting on a park bench in Headhouse Square, watching the fountain in Love Park, or attending a meeting at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
Philadelphia will be the first completely wireless city in the nation if the city’s Wireless Fidelity or “Wi-Fi” initiative has its way. Various media activists and technology gurus gathered Wednesday night at the Philadelphia Free Library to discuss the initiative. The goal is to provide cheap or free wireless Internet access throughout the city.
Though pockets of the city, including Love Park and the Convention Center, are already prepped for wireless Internet, this new attempt is the first city wide endeavor. Success or failure here will help shape the future of large-scale wireless access across the country.
If the project is completed, costly services from private companies would no longer be necessary, meaning that lower-income citizens previously unable to access the Internet would be able to do so for free.
“We can begin to bridge the digital divide,” said Anthony Townsend, Executive Director of NYCWireless, at the meeting Wednesday night.
As it is, Americans pay astronomical amounts for Internet access compared to other countries.
“We pay 10 times what the Japanese do,” said Harold Feld, associate director of the Media Access Project. “The private sector has failed us miserably.”
The private sector is also fighting back against the new movement. House Bill 30, now in front of the Pennsylvania Legislature, would not only make the project illegal, but will also allow private companies to raise their rates higher than they have legally been able to do in the past.
There is also financial risk associated with the project. Estimates for building a quality infrastructure run from $7 million to $10 million. Some are concerned that spending that much money in a city already strapped for cash is not timely. There are, however, opportunities for a profit.
Tom Armstrong, a Pa. State Representative, says that not only could we save millions of dollars in the long run, but the city could also “see its initial investment back within three years.” Philadelphia’s business appeal could increase dramatically, as networking costs would drop significantly.
The Wireless Philadelphia Executive Committee is working on the fiscal details, and will submit a proposal to the mayor shortly. Most likely, a combination of businesses and non-profits will subsidize the project.
City residents will most likely have free access to the Internet if the plan succeeds. All that is needed is a computer and an Ethernet card, which can be purchased for about $50.
Suzanne Jacobs can be reached at S8U6E@aol.com.