Philly Reveals Wireless Plan

By Eric Griffith

April 07, 2005

The City of Brotherly Love—the national poster child for municipal Wi-Fi broadband networks—today announced specifics that will undoubtedly lead to more fighting between groups for and against city and county-backed Wi-Fi clouds.

According to the Philadelphia Daily News, at noon today, John Street, the mayor of Philadelphia, Penn., and the city's CIO, Dianah Neff, planned to make official the business plan behind Wireless Philadelphia, the city's embattled move to bring wireless broadband to everyone in its surroundings.

The cost will be $10 million dollars to install as many as 3,000 wireless nodes on light poles across the 135 square mile city, with an additional $5 million to run the network for the first two years, according to Neff. The money won't come from taxpayers—a major gripe of the anti-municipal-wireless crowd—but will be raised through taxable bonds or by getting low-interest loans. The money would be repaid in four years.

No one company has been picked yet to do the install or to provide equipment for the network, but Neff believes a selection will be made by June 30, with deployment to start in August. Subscribers could be online by the end of the year.

The network will be owned by a non-profit also called Wireless Philadelphia, which will be run by a CEO and appointees from Mayor Street. Wireless Philadelphia will make money by licensing the network to carriers, which would resell access to end users. Neither the city nor Wireless Philadelphia would actually serve as the wireless ISP. Licensers will be required to keep the cost for end users down—likely lower than $20 per month, and even less for low-income homes.

Right now, they estimate that 42 percent of the city's denizens are not online, and that this is largely due to the high cost of broadband.

The companies that Wireless Philadelphia could allow to use the network may be some that tried to stop it in the first place, such as local providers of cable and DSL broadband.

City Councilman Frank Rizzo has long been an opponent of the Wireless Philadelphia project, and says it is not something government should do. He fears taxpayer money will be needed if subscribers don't sign up, and that the technology will be outdated very soon. In a op-ed piece in today's Chicago Tribune, Rizzo implies that Wi-Fi is "just another Big Dig," referring to the highly over-budget highway project in Boston that is still having issues even after completion. He says "the real costs could range from $30 million to $100 million for a feasible network" to cover Philly.

Wireless Philadelphia has gotten around the city council by not using public funds and by going non-profit. They don't need the council's approval.

The push to put a wireless cloud across Philly has been at the center of attacks against muni-backed Wi-Fi networks for months. A bill was passed by the Pennsylvania state legislature last year—just weeks after the news surfaced that Philly wanted such a network— that would prevent any state municipalities from installing a broadband network without an incumbent provider getting a right of first refusal. In December of last year, Verizon waived that right, and the project proceeded. Other cities in the state have until January 1 of 2006 to give their local telcos a chance to put in a network first.

In February, a Washington D.C.-based group called the New Millenium Research Council (NMRC) issued a report called "Not in the Public Interest—The Myth of Municipal W-Fi Networks," which called into question the necessity, anti-competitiveness and overall viability of municipally run wireless networks.

Many have charged the NRMC with a "lack of transparency," especially in terms of the groups backing it, potentially big telcos like Verizon. They also say the report ignores many successful deployments of municipal wireless, such as the network in Chaska, Minn.

That network is powered by equipment from Tropos Network, and that company's CEO, Ron Sege, has become one of the most vocal proponents of muni wireless networks (which is no surprise, as he wants his company to sell more products). In a commentary at ZDNet this week, he argues that the anti-muni groups have "flawed arguments," and says, "Policies that limit the rapid deployment of broadband wireless networks mean limiting the real benefits of these networks to public safety, economic growth and the education and enrichment of our citizens."

Philly and Chaska are far from the only cities with, or considering, a wireless Wi-Fi cloud. Others include Minneapolis, St. Paul & Moorhead, Minn.; Alexandria, Va.; Rochester & Buffalo, N.Y.; Rio Rancho, N.M.; Atlanta, Georgia; Chicago, Ill.; Las Vegas, Nev.; Lexington, Ky.; Addison & San Antonio, Texas; and Lompoc, Isla Vista, Fullerton, Cerritos, & San Francisco, Calif. There are many more— Tropos already claims over 125 metro-scale customers. And that's just the Wi-Fi networks. Many more have fixed wireless broadband that uses pre-WiMax or proprietary equipment to replace the physical lines needed for DSL and cable modems, even T-1 leased lines.

However, many states have passed or are trying to pass legislation similar to Pennsylvania's that would, at worst, make citywide wireless networks illegal. Those states include West Virginia, Texas, Colorado, Florida, Nebraska, Illinois, and others. Similar bills were tried in Indiana and Virginia, but died in committee, according to the MuniWireless.com March 2005 report.



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