The Philadelphia Story

By Wes Simonds

September 24, 2004

The City of Brotherly Love is 'singularly obsessed' with becoming the world's largest wireless LAN, and so far—at least on paper—the plans look good.

Forget hotspots—wireless cities are now hitting the big time.

Philadelphia is on track to become the largest wireless LAN hotspot on Earth (AKA, a Wi-Fi "cloud"). According to Dianah Neff, the city's chief information/technology officer, a proposal currently under consideration would provide the city's population of 1.6 million, spread out over 135 square miles, with a full range of Internet services.

Though the project is still in the early phases, an examination of public documents suggests Philadelphia isn't kidding, either. From a promotional city Web site (the Wireless Philadelphia Executive Committee by name) which evaluates the idea in some depth, consider this statement: "The City is singularly obsessed with bringing the benefits of true, affordable broadband data communications anywhere, anytime, to anyone that needs it. An examination of available alternatives show they don't measure up to the task."

A dedicated committee composed of fourteen members slated with the task of evaluating all the relevant issues has been appointed by Mayor John F. Street. Although bids are still being accepted from different vendors—MuniWireless says the company behind the downtown Palo Alto hotzone, AnchorFree Wireless, has proposed cover the city in Wi-Fi for $5 million— Neff is confident of an eventual rollout, with full deployment requiring a year.

"Wireless Philadelphia is scheduled to be launched June 2005 and completed by June 2006," she said. "[Different] areas will be live as they are installed. It is not necessary to wait until the entire system is built to activate it."

Philadelphia's isn't the first such project. Other cities, such as Chaska, Minnesota and Cerritos, Calif., have taken similar steps in creating citywide WLANs with special technology to address roaming and other similar technological concerns. Cerritos, for instance, makes use of mesh technology from Tropos Networks to achieve access cells which deliver scaleable performance with predictive path optimization—essential in order to achieve true WLAN roaming over a broad geographical area without the hiccoughs often associated with technologies such as cell phones. Tropos announced this week that it would be providing full coverage in Oklahoma City for first responders, one of their primary markets.

However, Philadelphia represents a staggering leap in scale and scope in the history of wireless hotspots. One would imagine they would be even more applicable, given the strikingly greater coverage area and potential user base. Neff, though, suggests that at present, the emphasis for Wireless Philadelphia is more about evaluating the fundamental goals of civic benefit and universal access.

"This process is influenced by the technology [required to meet] the Mayor's goals for the City and wanting to make Philadelphia the first major city to deploy digital infrastructure to serve the entire community," she said. "The major challenge is marrying technology with education to help all sectors of the community benefit from the economic development opportunity, community enhancement and eliminating the digital divide. Another challenge is being sure there is access to affordable computers, as well as affordable broadband access."

Affordable is a subjective concept, but current estimates suggest Wireless Philadelphia will be available along very reasonable lines. Though it will cost the city an estimated $10 million to deploy initially and a subsequent $1.5 million annually to maintain, that cost will be distributed to the community for surprisingly little. Neff suggests that cost on a per-capita basis will be much lower than the current $35-$60 often associated with consumer-grade broadband Internet access (naturally there's no sure way to know in advance).

That money could be derived in any of a variety of ways. Cerritos, for instance, provides its service through a wireless Internet Service Provider (WISP), Aiirmesh Communications, which handles billing and fulfillment, with Pronto Networks supplying relevant back-end technology. Neff, in contrast, says the most likely revenue model for Philadelphia at the present time is public in nature.

"We anticipate a standard utility billing process," she said. In this sense, Internet access is conceived more as a standard commodity such as electricity, available as a community service at low or no cost, and not an exotic option available from private companies.

Naturally, with such technology available from a public source, one might wonder: How can traditional ISPs compete? Local providers such as Comcast and Verizon may very well object to the intrusion by the state into what has previously operated as a traditional free-market arena. Neff, however, believes that Wireless Philadelphia is better considered a potential financial windfall for such providers than a competitive threat. She feels that as the city contracts out certain aspects of the service, private firms will inevitably benefit as a result, though they may lose a certain percentage of users initially.

"We are looking to provide business opportunity through this endeavor—whether that is management of network, backhaul connection, ISP services or local ISPs or WISPs [which] have access to neighborhoods where high-speed access was not available in the past," she said.

One interesting distinction between Wireless Philadelphia and other similar projects: the protocols supported. According to Neff, 802.11b will be available as well as 802.11g, plus WiMax (802.16) in due course (despite what some marketing departments say, it's not here yet). WiMax, recently endorsed by technology monolith Intel as a central technology for its future and widely perceived as key to the broadband wireless industry generally, is designed for far greater throughput and range than 802.11 solutions, but as such will likely be used as a replacement for high-capacity lines like DSL or T1, at least to start.

Philadelphia, however, will wait until such time as it is more widely deployed and thoroughly tested. "We will look to incorporate WiMax when the standards have been adopted," said Neff.



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