Power: Whiffing on Wi – Fi

The first wireless city! Everyone connected to the Internet! Civic leaders and the media, including this magazine, believed wi-fi would be the centerpiece of Philadelphia’s return to greatness. What went wrong?

IT WAS DIANAH Neff who would do this. With short hair that fluctuated between chestnut and burgundy, and a penchant for boxy, sometimes loud clothing, Neff was the highest – paid member of John Street’s cabinet, at $193,800 a year; she had come to Philadelphia in 2001 from California following a national search. As the chief information officer for the city of Palo Alto, Neff had spearheaded the creation of the first city government website in the country. Street’s administration would soon be mired in the pay-to-play scandal, and he would desperately need a legacy-defining initiative. The mayor found one that was eye-popping: Philadelphia would become the first large city in the world to create a citywide wireless Internet network, allowing anyone in any part of its 135 square miles — including the staggering 55 percent of its residents without Internet access — to click a button and connect to the World Wide Web. This was Neff’s ­career-defining idea; she told the mayor it could be done, and he believed her.
 
“It will have a huge impact on the perception of Philadelphia as a 21st-century city and a progressive place,” Street said, a sentiment he and Neff would echo for years. And it would prove prescient, as the plan was quickly co-opted into a larger, international storyline then taking shape: that Philadelphia was, as the world’s most widely read travel magazine was about to anoint us — singling out the then-nascent wireless program as evidence — no less than America’s Next Great City.
 
Of course, Wireless Philadelphia hasn’t happened, and despite city government noise about sticking with the plan, it won’t, at least not in any incarnation remotely redolent of what was first promised. Which is probably why Dianah Neff is nowhere to be found, and why John Street’s legacy is squarely centered on corruption.
 
The failure is clear: Almost a year after Street left office, the wireless network remains incomplete and underutilized.  The company hired by the city to make it happen has fled town and cancelled its paltry 6,000 customers’ accounts. Cities around the world that had planned to emulate the “Philadelphia model” have either given up or changed directions. And the architects of a recently announced 11th-hour plan to save the network have had to concede a central reality known from the start but somehow missed — or ignored — by journalists and everyone else eager to perpetuate the inspiring story of Philadelphia’s rebirth: that the technology at the backbone of it all was and remains incompatible with the notion of “wiring” an entire municipal landscape indoors and out. Worst of all, all these years later, the plan’s original selling point—bridging the so-called “digital divide” and getting all of Philadelphia online — seems as quixotic and unlikely as ever.
 
There is, at least, a harsh object lesson to be taken from what went wrong. Not only did the Street administration swallow the Neff-driven initiative hook, line and sinker, but so did most of the rest of us. Why?

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