Philadelphia: Muni Wi-Fis Worst-Case Scenario

Updated: Opinion: Philadelphia has started soliciting bids for its proposed $10M muni Wi-Fi project; telecoms and cable companies oppose it. Will this be the beginning of the end for muni Wi-Fi?

Back in the days of the first OPEC-inspired energy crisis, an editorial cartoonist by the name of Jules Pfeiffer drew then-president Richard Nixon cutting cloth from one end of a blanket and sewing it back on the other, declaring that this was his answer to the problem. He called it Daylight Saving Time.

The idle switcheroo obviously didnt do much to solve the energy crisis, but it gave the public something to talk about that distracted from the real issue.

Philadelphias plan for municipal wireless is the same sort of thing. Its happening in a city that already has no shortage of broadband service and its sure to become a straw man in the very legitimate debate over the merits of municipal wireless.

According to details released yesterday, the City of Brotherly Love—where commercial providers Verizon and Comcast have already built out a considerable broadband infrastructure—plans to construct yet another broadband infrastructure.

Several things are attractive about the plan. One is that it will be funded through taxable bonds and not directly from the citys tax coffers. Another is the promise to make service available to low-income households. But the problem there is that wireless itself has little to do with the Digital Divide. People who are too poor to afford broadband service are too poor to own a computer.

To address that problem, Philadelphia plans to make computers available to low-income residents and to provide technical training to them, evidently to qualify them for the kinds of jobs that will enable them to buy PCs.

The problem with the Philadelphia project is that it stands to become the Terri Shiavo case of municipal wireless: a high-profile project that doesnt particularly resemble any others but, nevertheless, will be used to drive political agendas.

Any IT director whos carried out even a small-scale project within one building can tell you its no piece of cake. Every deployment has its problems, and the bigger the deployment, the bigger the problems. Thats why Philadelphia is the worst test of municipal wireless that anyone could find.

Yes, there probably are pockets of Philadelphia which still lack broadband access and which a municipal wireless system there could address. But its the smaller communities and rural environments in Pennsylvania—where there either is no service or where a single provider with no competition extorts prohibitive fees for service—where muni Wi-Fi makes the most sense.

Next Page: Philadelphia sold smaller communities down the river.