The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Philly to Defy Telecom Giants, Set Up Public Wireless Network

by Michelle Chen

In a move that ruffles the feathers of major internet service providers, the government of Philadelphia, PA says it will go ahead with plans to establish a municipally owned, low-cost wireless network serving the entire city.

Apr. 8, 2005 – The government of Philadelphia announced yesterday an ambitious business plan for a citywide high-speed wireless Internet service. The municipal network, designed to span 135 square miles, is a landmark in a growing movement toward publicly supported, high-speed open networks. But as activists herald the network as a step forward in defiance of telecommunications monopolies, they remain vigilant about the national struggle of community Internet initiatives against corporate lobbying and media campaigns.

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According to the government’s initial plan, the Philadelphia wireless network will offer inexpensive high-speed, or "broadband," access through wireless technology that weaves base stations powered by public sources like street lamps into a wireless "mesh" network. The service, cooperatively offered through government and private resources, will be open to households, public institutions, businesses and mobile devices within range of the local signal.

The business plan, issued by the Wireless Philadelphia Executive Committee, calls the wireless network "an essential element of a long-term strategy to invest in the human capital of the City."

"There was a vision and a desire to make sure that Philadelphia could be competitive as a digital city of the 21st century," said Chief Information Officer Dianah Neff, who leads the Executive Committee, speaking at a press conference on the business plan on Thursday.

The sense of victory surrounding the Philadelphia initiative is dampened by widespread political pressure from corporations to quash public networking initiatives.

In the opinion of Esme Vos, technology consultant and founder of the national wireless advocacy network Muniwireless.com, "The Philadelphia plan shows that cities can get creative about designing public-private partnerships… that lower the cost of communications for businesses and residents in the city."

The start-up cost for the venture is estimated at roughly $10 million, with an additional $500,000 annual investment over the following three years. Revenues from the program, expected to begin flowing after four years, will finance additional infrastructure upgrades along with so-called "digital divide" programs that provide training and low-cost computers to low-income residents, nonprofits and small businesses.

Countering fears stoked by opponents that municipal networks place a fiscal strain on cities, the capital investment for the Philadelphia network will draw not from city tax funds but instead from foundation grants, bank loans and other private sources. In the coming months, the city will review proposals from vendors to provide services or equipment.

The Wireless Promise

The networking program, according to the business plan released Thursday, runs on a "cooperative wholesale model" in which a nonprofit corporation established by the city administers the network and subcontracts work to Internet service providers and other vendors.

According to the Executive Committee’s projections, the network will be available to more than 560,000 residences, and by the fifth year of operation, 130,000 homes, or 22 percent of all city households, could be subscribed. The Executive Committee’s research on citywide Internet access found that currently, only 45 percent of homes have any kind of Internet access, the majority of them with low-speed dial-up connections, with much lower access rates among low-income residents.

The basic monthly access fee for high-speed access through the public network would be less than $20, or about the standard price of a dial-up account. Different levels of service would be offered for public institutions and businesses, and discounted rates would be available to economically disadvantaged groups. A regular residential high-speed Internet connection currently costs as much as $50 per month for a single household. The city will also provide mobile wireless or "nomadic" services for free in public parks, while the major cellular service provider T-Mobile currently charges $40 per month for mobile Internet subscriptions, which can be accessed from specific commercial locations such as Starbucks coffee shops.

The initiative for Philadelphia’s network emerged from community concerns over unmet technological needs. The idea for a public wireless solution was incubated in a seventeen-member committee appointed by the mayor’s office, comprised of representatives from the education system, small businesses and economic development groups. Both the committee and the government agreed that of all the technical models for deploying a citywide broadband service, a wireless mesh would require the least money to build.

"You don’t have to dig up your streets," Neff said in a February interview with Etopia News Networks, "and so the infrastructure costs are significantly less."

Proponents of municipal Internet access projects, ranging from media rights organizations to minority chambers of commerce, view free or low-cost community networks based on wireless technology as a mechanism to enhance information access, facilitate the work of government agencies, and strengthen local economies.

Corporations Darken Prospects for Community Networks

Not everyone shares this enthusiasm about the convergence between community development and communications technology. For advocates, the sense of victory surrounding the Philadelphia initiative is dampened by widespread political pressure from corporations to quash public networking initiatives.

Where communities see social promise, telecommunications corporations see financial peril. The companies that lay claim to much of the country’s communications infrastructure, supported by pro-industry conservative think tanks, allege that municipal networks obstruct the free market only to offer inferior services.

Back in November, the nascent plans for the Philadelphia network were nearly aborted when Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, backed by telecommunications behemoth Verizon, signed a law that would bar every local government from providing broadband "within the service territory of a local exchange telecommunications company," unless that body first offered the incumbent service provider an opportunity to deploy its own network. So now legacy service providers automatically take priority over municipalities in setting up citywide networks.

Philadelphia’s Wi-Fi plans survived that legal hurdle, however, with a last-minute deal between the Governor and Verizon to allow the project to proceed.

Fourteen states have passed laws restricting public entities from competing with private companies in providing telecommunications services, according to the American Public Power Association, a public utilities association that supports municipal broadband initiatives.

According to the most recent report of the Baller-Herbst Law Group, which specializes in municipal networking issues, anti-municipal broadband bills are now under consideration in eight states, including Texas, Iowa and Colorado.

Corporations claim they are lobbying to prevent government monopolies, not to bolster their own. When questioned about the industry’s lobbying activities at a March 15 US Senate hearing on telecommunications mergers, Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg argued, "[W]e find it unfair that municipalities that regulate us, set our taxes, set our franchise fees… also now want to compete with us, under a different set of rules."

But activists believe that the success of wireless networks operating outside the mainstream telecommunications regime reveal the failure of big business to serve people’s needs. Vos commented, "[T]he telcos have only themselves to blame for ignoring entire communities" and setting artificially high prices.

Proponents of community-based broadband point out that in the global communications landscape, the United States has fallen behind other industrialized nations in utilizing broadband and related technologies. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an intergovernmental research institution, reported that in 2004 the US ranked eleventh in the world in the prevalence of high-speed Internet connections in proportion to the population, trailing South Korea and Norway.

In an October 2004 report denouncing the sluggish growth of broadband in the US, Mark Cooper, director of research at the national public advocacy group the Consumer Federation of America, contended that the statistics should jolt policymakers into promoting open networks. "Neglecting universal service and affordability," he wrote, "threatens to turn the digital divide into a permanent, digital chasm."

Activists are also wary of massive public information campaigns launched by telecommunications companies to tarnish the image of community networks.

In 2003 and again in 2004, the Illinois-based community advocacy group Fiber for our Future tried to push forward a referendum "to build a locally owned and operated utility" that would offer broadband, cable television and telephone services to the Tri-cities region of the Batavia, Geneva and St. Charles, Illinois. Both attempts foundered against the formidable resistance of the dominant service providers SBC and Comcast, which launched aggressive public information campaigns to persuade residents that municipal networks are redundant and a potential waste of tax money.

Yet despite the efforts of corporations to stymie the momentum of municipal Internet projects, community broadband services – sponsored by governments, private companies, community members, and combinations of these – continue to mushroom, spawning in cities as well as underserved rural areas. The American Public Power Association’s research has registered over 620 broadband-related services offered by publicly operated utilities all over the country.

On and Off the Government Grid

Meanwhile, grassroots activists work to provide low-cost community access that is relatively independent of both government agencies and corporate interests. The Champaign-Urbana Wireless Internet project, for example, operates a high-speed network based on homegrown open-source software, while the private cooperative Northwest Open Access Network uses public fiber-optic cable to connect dozens of communities in Washington and Oregon.

As Philadelphia prepares to float its wireless cloud over the city of 1.5 million, activists are watching to see how this government-sponsored network model will impact the rest of the community Internet movement.

Hannah Sassaman, an organizer with the Philadelphia-based media advocacy group Prometheus Radio Project, believes the realization of the city’s wireless plan after months of political tumult punctuates a continuing quest for community control over local telecommunications systems.

If the city government "really builds a network that community members can use to connect with their neighbors on their own terms," she said, "then other municipalities will stand up and take notice... The state legislatures might be under the marching orders of the incumbent telecommunications providers, but we're demanding that our cities represent us and fight back."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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