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?

 
Neff cast the fight as a classic struggle between David and Goliath; it was a storyline difficult to resist, especially when Verizon lobbied Harrisburg and beyond for statewide bans against cities forging alliances with Internet companies, claiming unfair advantage. Neff penned combative editorials with headlines like “Hands off our Wi-Fi network!” The press was mostly supportive. This magazine’s contrarian wrote that his doubts were allayed by Verizon’s objections: “If the phone monopoly is worried enough to sic its lobbyists on the legislature, wireless Philly is a winner.”
 
In the end, despite the duopoly’s warnings, City Council voted unanimously to authorize Philadelphia’s wireless program. “I didn’t want to be sour grapes,” Rizzo explained of his about-face. “I had made my position abundantly clear, and it was a unanimous vote; there was no point in my being the one vote against it.”
 

 
ALMOST IMMEDIATELY, IT became obvious that the complexity of the project had been under-appreciated. It was initially projected to cost EarthLink $10 million and be ready by February 2006; the price would triple, while the network remains incomplete. Meanwhile, Comcast and Verizon both reduced their prices to rates better than what EarthLink was offering for service that was a fraction of their speeds.
 
In fact, the choice of EarthLink itself was flawed. Municipal wireless had been something of a Hail Mary for the company, which was mainly a dial-up provider trying to reinvent itself. EarthLink was overextended, having capitalized on its Philadelphia fame to secure contracts in cities all across the country. In 2007, its CEO — municipal wireless’s proudest champion — died of cancer; his replacement, seeking to cut costs, began steering the company away from such initiatives. In August 2007, just three months after EarthLink completed its 15-mile test area here, the company announced it would cut 900 jobs.
 
Nevertheless, EarthLink continued offering subscriptions, even as the service was poor. Once again, I drank the Kool-Aid, plopping down the introductory rate of $6.95 a month. Over the next several months, I can count on one hand the number of times I caught a signal, and even then the speed was tortoise-like, and I was disconnected within a minute. When I called for assistance, a kind young man in India informed me I’d need a “wi-fi booster,” since I lived on the 15th floor of a Center City high – rise; it made no difference.
 
In early June, EarthLink stopped service; of the paltry 5,942 city-dwellers who had signed on, only 908 were from the “­digital-inclusion program”— the ­low-income demographic driving the project in the first place.
 
By then, Dianah Neff was nowhere to be found. In August 2006, she announced she was leaving Philadelphia to become a senior partner at Civitium, an Atlanta-based Internet-consulting firm in the vanguard of municipal wi-fi. This was the same company to which Wireless Philadelphia and the city — under Neff’s direction — paid almost $500,000 for consulting work, much of it not subject to competitive bidding. While a Philadelphia Board of Ethics investigation concluded that Neff hadn’t violated any laws, it nevertheless called her handling of the situation “a matter of concern.” I tried repeatedly to reach Neff for comment. There was no answer at Civitium’s Atlanta headquarters; messages I left on what sounded like a home-style answering machine went unreturned, as did those on the voicemails of several Civitium employees.

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