Philadelphia to Announce Wi-Fi Expansion Plans

The city will move forward with a public/private partnership to build a citywide wireless broadband system starting this year.

The city of Philadelphia will release details of its wireless expansion plan next week. The plan, according to city CIO Dianah Neff, is to cover the entire city from downtown to local neighborhoods with low-cost, wireless broadband access.

"Were getting ready to announce how were moving forward with Wireless Philadelphia," Neff said. She added that it will include "the nuts and bolts of how were going to move forward."

"It will include the business model and how were using public/private partnerships to construct services, how it will be financed and time frames."

Neff said Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street will announce the wireless business plan Feb. 9 at the citys Independence Center. The plan will call for construction of the citywide network to begin midyear 2005 and finish by the end of summer 2006, Neff said. When completed, the network will cover about 135 square miles, she said.

"Our goal is to cover the entire city of Philadelphia with wireless broadband access at low rates so every person, business and visitor will have an opportunity have access to wireless broadband anywhere in the city," Neff said. She added that Philadelphia is on track to become what she called a "digital city," and that ubiquitous wireless broadband would enhance the citys economy.

Neff also said part of the citys effort is to help overcome the digital divide by providing affordable, last-mile coverage so that schools can reach out to families and to children in their homes. She indicated that low-income families would be able to receive subsidized access.

In addition to providing its citizens with access, Neff said the city would be making use of the network itself to provide access to city workers including inspectors, social workers and others who now must return to their offices from the field to file reports. She said that being able to work remotely could save as much as two hours per day per employee.

One concern for Neff and for Philadelphia has been the recent entry into the broadband fray with legislation by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that restricts municipal networks. The city has received a waiver for its network, but she said the public/private partnership would have kept it from being a problem anyway.

The citys business plan and subsequent RFP (request for proposal) are based on an interim wireless network in downtown Philadelphia that used equipment from Tropos Networks Inc.

The test network covered four square miles. While its by no means certain that Tropos will get the nod to build the new network, company president and CEO Ron Sege said he thinks his company stands a pretty good chance. He said Tropos has already built similar mesh networks in 135 cities in the United States.

"Everybody is very interested in the details of whos going to use the [Philadelphia] network," Sege said, adding that it will be a private network. "It will be very similar to a cable franchise model. The city will confer certain rights and obligations."

Sege said that in order for the proposed network to operate properly, it would have to be a mesh network, which is what Tropos is providing to municipalities elsewhere. He predicted that costs would be lower to consumers than for current, public Wi-Fi networks from T-Mobile and Boingo, among others.

The mesh network "is emerging as a very promising technology that already works," said Michael Howard, principal analyst at Infonetics Research Inc. in San Jose, Calif. "It allows a wide coverage area without a lot of expensive towers."

Howard said he thinks Tropos has an edge in getting the hardware contract in Philadelphia. "They were the first one to really take mesh networking to revenue," he said. He also said he thinks Philadelphia is acting as a model for other cities. "A lot of cities will be watching that deployment to see if it makes sense for their cities and their populations."

According to Charles Golvin, principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc., the addition of city-sponsored broadband wireless will likely be very good for consumers and for the city. He said that while theres competition in the broadband market, its a lot different from the highly competitive cellular market.

There are usually no more than two broadband providers available to most potential users, and that doesnt necessarily promote competition, he said. Instead, they form duopolies that lead to stable prices—but little else. "Duopolies dont lead to competition," Golvin said.

"The addition of a third type of broadband provider is good for consumers and the competitive environment," Golvin said, adding that competition will be improved with Philadelphias approach because it offers something the others dont. "They have mobility, and cable and DSL do not," he said. He added that existing hot spots provide portability, but not mobility.

Colvin and Howard werent the only analysts expressing their views on municipal wireless efforts. Today in Washington, the New Millennium Research Council presented a report claiming that municipal networks are frequently impractical, and have what the organization calls "grave flaws."

The NMRC put forth a group of handpicked experts, including Steven Titch from the Heartland Institute, who suggested that a better alternative would be to use existing wireless technology already in cities, such as what is available at existing hot spots in Starbucks and other public locations.

The presentation used Philadelphia as an example of misguided attempts at public Wi-Fi networks, but did not address the private partnership approach that the city is actually using.

/zimages/6/28571.gifClick here for a column on the municipal wireless report.

While preparing this story, learned that the NMRC is actually owned and sponsored by Washington lobbying firm Issue Dynamics Inc., whose clients include most of the major telecommunications companies in the United States. Those companies have been active in opposing municipal wireless and broadband efforts. The company claimed that its reports were nevertheless completely independent.

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Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...