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.
Philadelphia Sold Communities Down
Its just those kinds of communities, however, that Philadelphia sold down the river when it agreed to drop its opposition to Pennsylvania House Bill 30. Thats the bill, adopted by the Pennsylvania legislature and signed by the governor last year, that effectively gives incumbent carriers monopolistic control over—and the ability to nix—city ambitions for municipal broadband, including muni Wi-Fi.
In exchange, Verizon, the incumbent carrier in Philadelphia and the one that stood to gain the most from H.B. 30, agreed not to exercise that control and to allow the city to do its own thing.
Earlier this week the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on a study conducted by the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. The NCTA, a group with an obvious bias in the matter, said its poll of 400 Philadelphians found “lukewarm support for the plan, strong suspicions of Mayor Street, and grave doubts about Philadelphias future.”
According to the Inquirer, “the poll found that about 35 percent of respondents favored the initiative, while 28 percent opposed it. After being read paragraphs expressing proponents and opponents views of the wireless initiative, 61 percent opposed it, while 29 percent supported it.” (Care to speculate about the objectivity of those paragraphs?)
Muni advocate Bonnie Riedel said that the telecom and cable industries are “making a national fight out of it,” referring to the use of the Philadelphia project to ram through similar legislation in other states.
NCTA spokesman Brian Dietz countered, “Many cable providers have suspicions about government investing increasingly scarce taxpayer resources in creating a wireless network where the private sector provides them with cutting-edge technology.”
So you believe for a moment that the bleeding hearts of the telecom and cable industries stay up nights worrying about how your cities are spending your tax dollars?
If anyone really believes its not their own increasingly scarce resources these companies are worried about, take a took at Trends in U.S. Broadband Adoption, a report from Research and Market. It puts a fine point on whats happening to resources in the broadband world.
The report predicts that broadband prices in the United States “will continue to feel pressure from the low-end with high-speed dial-up services and from the high-end as DSL providers look to wage a price war on their cable brethren. The next few years are going to be very interesting for both consumers and broadband service providers.”
Throw low-cost, even free, municipal Wi-Fi service into the mix and you get a good picture of the future the industry faces if broadband goes egalitarian.
But the Philadelphia project is as threatening to the push for municipal Wi-Fi as it is to the telecoms and cable companies right now. It hangs over both sides of the issue like a Sword of Damocles.
Theres almost nothing about the Philadelphia program that in any way resembles successful municipal wireless programs deployed elsewhere. To start with, most are in much smaller cities. Phillys program is as massive in its bureaucracy as it is in its scope. It may not fail but its certainly bound for a rocky road.
And if it does fail, opponents of municipal wireless will use it to bludgeon munis to death in the many state legislatures where anti-muni bills linger.
Having gotten its cake, Philadelphia pushed every other Pennsylvania citys muni Wi-Fi ambitions out in the rain. Now, as a “model” for the nation, it threatens to do the same for everyone else.
Editors Note: This story was updated to include corrected project funding information.
Carol Ellison is editor of the eWEEK Mobile & Wireless Topic Center. She has worked as a technology journalist since 1986 and has covered the wireless industry since 2000.