Tangled Web

Mayor Street’s proposal to transform Philadelphia into the world’s largest wireless Internet hot spot sounds like it’s on the cutting edge of technology. Take $10 million to install a system that includes thousands of wireless

Mayor Street’s proposal to transform Philadelphia into the world’s largest wireless Internet hot spot sounds like it’s on the cutting edge of technology. Take $10 million to install a system that includes thousands of wireless cells, link them all together, and refine the city into a sophisticated grid of fully connected Web surfers. The plan is complicated and modern. The administration’s thought process is na├»ve and archaic.

In a city plagued with economic hardships and huge budget deficits, Mayor Street’s last item on his laundry list of priorities should be providing wireless Internet access to Philadelphians.

SEPTA is trying to cope with a $72 million deficit. Area residents are facing the prospect of having their mass transit service terminated on weekends, as well as the possibility of fare increases. Further, a number of SEPTA employees will undoubtedly be put out of work in order to compensate for the shortfall if losses continue.

The Philadelphia School system is in shambles. Not unlike SEPTA, strikes always seem imminent. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has extended contract negotiations, but with minimal amounts of state aid, teachers have little to no incentive to stay within the city’s limits. The school system has enough trouble keeping its doors open, let alone attempting to raise salaries, provide training for new teachers, or assist in purchasing more school supplies and updated textbooks.

Yet, Mayor Street has a hunch. Forget mass transit and public schools. Poverty and crime can wait. Let’s get wireless, and let’s get it first.

It’s undeniable that in the mayor’s ideal world he would be the first one touting Philadelphia’s wireless accomplishment to those flooding the gates to leave the city. He would single-handedly end the “brain drain.” That is, put an end to college graduates educated in Philadelphia from participating in a mass exodus year after year.

He would also thwart the “digital divide.” By providing inexpensive wireless internet access points throughout the entire city, low income families would have no choice but to hop on the Internet and start blogging.

But in every aforementioned example, naivete will be the only prevailing policy. For college graduates, wireless Internet is hardly a number one priority. The opportunity for economic advancement, low-crime rates, reliable public services and a healthy environment to raise a family, which includes a stellar public school system, perhaps. The opportunity to sit in LOVE Park and surf the net during lunch? Perhaps not.

The “digital divide” is not a self-remedying situation. Because wireless access will be provided for all still does not mean low-income families have the desire, need, or skills to utilize the technology. If those in the lower-class have never used a computer, or will not have the opportunity to be trained in computer literacy, even inexpensive Internet access will mean virtually nothing.

Street is also overlooking safety concerns and is underestimating the cost of maintenance and repairs. As reported in The Temple News, the University’s network alone encounters approximately 10,000 viruses a day and persistent attempts from hackers. With a million people on a wireless network, privacy and confidentiality would be extremely hard to maintain. Therefore, the city would have to work constantly to repair damages and maintain seamless service.

Philadelphia resident T.K. Robinson shared the same concerns in his letter to the editor published in the Daily News on Tuesday. Titled “Low-tech first, Mr. Mayor,” Robinson voices the concerns of many area residents over lack of funding and mismanagement of priorities. “If he [Mayor Street] can wave his wand and – poof – suddenly make the money appear, I have to wonder why some basics for this city are not being funded.” Sadly, most Philadelphians are likely wondering the same thing.

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