[Paleopsych] NYT: Philadelphia Hopes for a Lead in the Wireless Race
checker at panix.com
Wed Apr 6 22:39:27 UTC 2005
Philadelphia Hopes for a Lead in the Wireless Race
February 17, 2005
By JAMES DAO
PHILADELPHIA, Feb. 11 - If Mayor John F. Street has his way, by next
year this 135-square-mile metropolis will become one gigantic wireless
hot spot, offering every neighborhood high-speed access to the Web at
below-market prices in what would be the largest experiment in
municipal Internet service in the country.
City officials envision a seamless mesh of broadband signals that will
enable the police to download mug shots as they race to crime scenes
in their patrol cars, allow truck drivers to maintain Internet access
to inventories as they roam the city, and perhaps most important, let
students and low-income residents get on the net.
Experts say the Philadelphia model, if successful, could provide the
tipping point for a nationwide movement to make broadband affordable
and accessible in every municipality. From tiny St. Francis, Kan., to
tech-savvy San Francisco, more than 50 local governments have already
installed or are on the verge of creating municipal broadband systems
for the public.
But Philadelphia's plan has prompted a debate over who should provide
the service, and whether government should compete with private
industry, particularly in hard-to-reach rural areas or low-income
urban communities. Telecommunications and cable companies say that
municipal Internet networks will not only inhibit private enterprise,
but also result in poor service and wasted tax dollars. They have
mounted major lobbying campaigns in several states to restrict or
prohibit municipalities from establishing their own networks.
"This is a growing trend, but an ominous and disturbing one," said
Adam Thierer, director of telecommunications studies at the
libertarian Cato Institute and the author of a soon-to-be-released
study criticizing the Philadelphia plan. "The last thing I'd want to
see is broadband turned into a lazy public utility."
Philadelphia officials say that will not happen here. Mr. Street has
said he will try to raise corporate and foundation financing so the
strapped city does not have to pay the network's $10 million startup
costs. He also says the city will recruit private companies to help
operate the system, asserting it will earn enough revenue to be
Though details of Mr. Street's plan are still being developed, the
city expects to install 4,000 wireless antennas along lampposts across
the city in the next 18 months, creating a network of broadband
City officials also hope to extend service into homes and businesses
in poor neighborhoods, using nonprofit organizations to provide
low-cost equipment, training and service.
"Just as highways were a critical infrastructure component of the last
century, wireless Internet access must be a part of our infrastructure
for the 21st century," Mr. Street said last month in a speech before
the United States Conference of Mayors.
Most municipally run Internet systems are in small rural towns, many
of which provide service at below-market rates. Philadelphia is
proposing to charge $15 to $25 a month for its service, half of what
private servers now charge, and even less for low-income users.
Industry officials say that if the program takes off, it will
inevitably take customers from providers like the Comcast
Corporation or Verizon Communications.
"Is it fair that the industry pay tax dollars to the city that are
then used to launch a network that would compete with our own?" asked
David L. Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast, which is based in
Philadelphia. "I don't think so."
Officials in Philadelphia and other municipalities contend they never
intended to compete with private companies. Many say they want to
provide Internet service only because students, small businesses and
low-income residents cannot afford or obtain high-speed Internet
Philadelphia officials say a recent survey found that nearly 40
percent of residents did not have Internet service. But industry
officials say that virtually every neighborhood in the city is wired
for broadband and that many people are choosing not to buy it.
Industry officials and advocates of limited government also say
providing Internet access is far more risky, complicated and expensive
than government officials realize. Equipment will quickly become
obsolete, and slow-moving governments will not keep pace, they say.
"Government doesn't do service well," said Eric Rabe, vice president
for public relations for Verizon.
"And communications is complicated. The technology changes constantly.
Verizon has 3.5 million D.S.L. subscribers," Mr. Rabe said, referring
to digital subscriber lines, "and we're still trying to figure out how
to make money at $30 per month."
Pushed by industry lobbyists, lawmakers in Kansas, Ohio, Texas,
Indiana, Iowa, Oregon and other states have proposed legislation to
restrict or prohibit local governments from offering
telecommunications services. Nearly a dozen states have already
enacted some restrictions.
Verizon won a victory in Pennsylvania late last year when Gov. Edward
G. Rendell signed a measure requiring that cities first give the main
local phone company the right to build a high-speed Internet network.
If the phone company proceeds within 14 months, the city must drop its
plans . Philadelphia was exempted from the law.
In Kansas, the town of St. Francis, population 1,495, began offering
Internet service nearly three years ago and now has 200 subscribers.
"We could not get anybody to provide us high-speed Internet," said J.
R. Landenberger, city manager. "When that didn't work, we decided to
do it ourselves."
In Scottsburg, Ind., a city of 6,000 near the Kentucky border,
officials say a survey conducted in 2002 found that three local
companies were considering moving or expanding elsewhere because they
could not get broadband service.
The officials say they urged several providers to extend a network
into town, but were told it was too small or remote to justify the
cost. Consultants recommended that the town build a fiber network, at
a cost of $5 million. Then city officials discovered wireless.
For an initial investment of $385,000, the town's municipally owned
electric utility created a wireless broadband network for the entire
county. Businesses now can buy high-speed service for $200 per month,
about half the cost in nearby Louisville, Ky.
The service has about 600 subscribers, more than enough to cover its
costs, town officials say. "We're just as pleased as we can be," Mayor
Bill Graham said. "It's the same system they put into the Pentagon
after Sept. 11. It is very secure, very fast and very reliable."
In Philadelphia, the skeptics argue that running a broadband network
for a small town is far different from running one for a city of 1.5
million. Though installing a network of antennas might be
straightforward, creating a system for billing, marketing and fielding
service complaints will be far more difficult than the city imagines,
they say. The city estimates the cost of maintaining the system will
be $1.5 million a year.
"The real cost will be very different than what they think," Mr. Cohen
of Comcast said.
Philadelphia officials say skeptics will come around when they see the
power of broadband to attract business and improve the lives of poor
The Philadelphia plan will allow Internet users to roam anywhere in
the city and remain connected, as long as they are outdoors, said
Dianah Neff, the city's chief information officer. But bringing the
signal indoors will require extra equipment. To help low-income
residents acquire such equipment, the city plans to recruit a network
of community organizations that can provide training, inexpensive
computers and wireless equipment to eligible residents.
In West Philadelphia, the People's Emergency Center, a nonprofit
group, is already providing such services, including after-school
computer programs, wireless access at $5 a month, Web site development
for small businesses and a program that helps welfare recipients
communicate with caseworkers through the Internet. The group also
sells refurbished computers to eligible residents for $125.
"Acquiring low-cost computers is the smallest problem," said Tan B.
Vu, manager of the center's digital inclusion program. "The bigger
problem is that people don't have Internet access. And that is where
the city comes in."
One of the center's clients, Denise Stoner, 32, embodies both the
promise and pitfalls of the city's plans.
A recently homeless mother who has a learning disabled son and a deaf
daughter, both of whom have heart problems, Ms. Stoner has a
refurbished desktop computer with broadband wireless service provided
by the People's Emergency Center.
But her aging computer is slow and often hampered by viruses, which
she depends on the center's technicians to eradicate. And while her
9-year-old son has improved his reading and spelling skills by using
the Internet, he spends most of his time online playing games.
Still, Ms. Stoner has found both information and comfort from the
Internet. She has learned sign language online to converse with her
2-year-old daughter. And she has discovered chat rooms for parents of
children who have the same heart problems as her children.
"I ask them how they get by," she said of her e-mail conversations
with people as far away as Africa. "They say they take it one day at a
More information about the paleopsych