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?
 

 JOHN STREET WAS an unapologetic tech junkie. This was the mayor who would make national headlines for waiting in line, on a workday, on and off for 15 hours for an iPhone. He was a perfect foil for Dianah Neff. When Street hired Neff, she was interested in pursuing how a wi-fi Internet network available across the city could cut costs and streamline operations. She approached him with the idea of making such a network available to everyone in the city, by placing thousands of shoebox-size wi-fi transmitting antennas, or “nodes,” on light poles across town, creating one massive citywide hot spot. “And he instantly got it,” she would later recall. “He’s what I call my Gadgets Guy.” After a successful two-month test drive at Love Park in 2004, the administration began moving on the creation of Wireless Philadelphia.
 
But the nitty – gritty of how the Street administration conducted business didn’t help make it happen. Mayor Street’s meetings about wi – fi tended toward the boring, if occasionally comical. While he fancied himself tech – savvy, a tech insider told me it quickly became clear that “Street was a technology user, not a technologist.” Street’s meetings in general were infamously long, loose, and devoid of any sense of urgency. A policy wonk from his days on City Council, Street preferred dealing in ideas, not in implementation, leading to a diffusion of accountability and responsibility.
 
At the start of one such wi-fi meeting, as the federal corruption investigation targeting City Hall was still swirling, the speakerphone on the conference table began hissing static. With Neff by his side, in a room full of Internet consultants, Street banged maniacally on the table and the speakerphone. Referring to Philadelphia’s federal building, he shouted, “If that’s you guys at 6th and Market, get off the line! Don’t you know we’re trying to conduct a business meeting here?”
 
The significant autonomy Street gave Neff would also prove problematic. And Neff — bullish, forceful, undoubtedly smart, if not the technological genius she portrayed herself as — enjoyed the unwavering support of the mayor’s chief of staff, Joyce Wilkerson, who controlled access to Street. “If everybody else had gone to Street and said that Dianah wasn’t right, he’d wait to see what Joyce said,” Street’s managing director Phil Goldsmith remembers. “Joyce felt that she was doing a good job — Joyce was her major supporter.”
 
But Wilkerson wasn’t in a position, say those who watched these inside interactions, to judge whether Neff knew what she was talking about. “The only person who knew technology was Neff,” one insider explains, “so Neff would go in there and everybody would be lost. Wilkerson wasn’t tech-savvy, so she certainly wasn’t going to disagree with her.”
 

 IN JOURNALISM SCHOOLS — and in many newsrooms — it’s often said, disparagingly, that all you need to write a trend story is three examples. The truth is that Philadelphia was changing; anyone who walked down Walnut Street or journeyed to Northern Liberties could feel it: a sense of youth and energy that had been strangely absent in what was then America’s fifth-largest city. Still, no reporter of any repute would think of filing a trend story based on I went to Philadelphia and it felt different, felt cooler. It was against this background that Wireless Philadelphia emerged — a piece of evidence to be fashioned into authority. It caught like wildfire.
 
The New York Times — which would famously illustrate Philadelphia’s coolness makeover by anointing us its “Next Borough”— was particularly enthusiastic. “Forget cheesesteaks, cream cheese and brotherly love,” the Times announced. “Philadelphia wants to be known as the city of laptops.” Media from India to Australia took notice. “Philadelphia is one of the oldest and most historic cities in America,” noted the Guardian of London. “It could also soon be one of the most futuristic.”
 
But it was National Geographic Traveler magazine that seemed to permanently change the dynamic, after it named Philadelphia the Next Great American City in October 2005, singling out Wireless ­Philadelphia —“one of the more ambitious wireless plans on earth”— as proof.
 
To be fair, Philadelphia magazine was a big wi-fi cheerleader, featuring Ben Franklin on the cover in 2005, holding a laptop, with the headline “America’s Next Great City.” I drank the wi-fi Kool-Aid myself; in a profile of Philadelphia blogger Joey Sweeney, I wrote that he was “in many ways the embodiment of the strange confluence of factors shaping this city in 2006 — a ­Philadelphia morphing from cheesesteaks, Rocky movies and a gritty manufacturing vibe to trend-setting restaurateur Stephen Starr’s culinary headquarters, auteur filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan’s muse, and, perhaps, the first metropolitan area to offer citywide wi-fi Internet access.”
 
And there it was: the triumvirate, proof positive. Few journalists questioned the plan’s viability, or considered the dilemma our framing of the Philadelphia Renaissance Story as such posed: If wi-fi failed, wouldn’t the possibility of Philadelphia’s greatness suffer a mortal wound, too?
 
Back then, that all would have seemed so, well, typically cynical. Asked about the possibility that the plan might not work, Councilman Brian J. O’Neill said, “I’m not afraid of egg on the face,” adding that no matter what might happen, wi-fi had brought Philadelphia invaluable recognition. (O’Neill did not return my messages when I called his office recently.)
 
Meanwhile, Dianah Neff was emerging, as an article in the Inquirer aptly put it, as “a star in the wireless world.” The administration’s most frequent flyer, she jetted around the globe on average once every three weeks. She testified before New York’s city council and the United States Senate. Governing Magazine named her a “Public Official of the Year” at an awards ceremony for which she strode onstage accompanied by a flare of recorded trumpets.
 
Citywide wi-fi, she predicted, would prove to “have a bigger impact than what the Internet had 10 to 12 years ago.”
 

 DIANAH NEFF WASN’T afraid of controversy. Consider “Project Ocean,” her notorious $18 million effort to revolutionize the Water Department’s billing system through a deal with Oracle software that was abandoned by the city after three years. Neff had overridden the objections of many who felt the program was too expensive and unfeasible, including the water commissioner, who resigned in protest. The Controller’s office investigated. Particularly egregious was the role played by Jeanette Foxworth, a consultant with little relevant experience who was tapped to run the software conversion. Foxworth made more than a million dollars off the city as she billed it for 80-plus-hour workweeks at the same time she was inordinately billing the state of Connecticut; she’s now serving a federal prison sentence on unrelated charges brought by Connecticut. “People tried to tell Neff about it, but she just blew them off,” the Controller’s investigator says now. “Her attitude was, this is what I’m going to do, and the hell with everybody.”
 
But in the end, Neff’s bull-in-a-china-shop style hurt her. “My sense is, you not only need the right technical skills; you need the right personality skills to pull something like that off,” Goldsmith says of her agenda. “Dianah did not build the relationships that she needed.”  
 

 
IT WAS ONLY after Comcast and Verizon had made their opposition to wi-fi known — a Comcast official claims that their problems with it were technological, not driven by competition — and after the Wireless Philadelphia business model was already drawn, that Mayor Street invited Comcast to weigh in. The overture seemed perfunctory.
 
The Comcast critique now seems stunningly prescient: Much of the business model’s calculations were based on faulty numbers and unrealistic expectations (i.e., 85,000 subscribers would join in the first year), and it ignored the need for technicians or service. The wi-fi technology, designed to make a contained space wireless, wasn’t geared for an entire city; the frequency couldn’t penetrate thick walls, or heights, or other obstructions. There weren’t adequate security considerations. There was nothing protecting the city should EarthLink — the Internet company the city forged an unprecedented alliance with —­ abandon the plan. By the time the network was up and running, new, more powerful “WiMax” technology (which Comcast and other companies are now actively pursuing) would be rising.
 
Some on Council were duly skeptical. Then-Councilman Michael Nutter expressed repeated reservations about the city entering the domain of the private sector. Frank DiCicco wondered whether wi-fi was even a legitimate issue. But the most vocal critic, Councilman Frank Rizzo Jr., didn’t just feel that the government was reaching outside its bounds; he warned repeatedly that the program would eventually become the responsibility — financial and otherwise — of the city. “You didn’t need a CPA to see that this wasn’t going to work,” Rizzo says now. “But this effort to be this trailblazing technology city is what everybody got all caught up in.”
 
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.
 
Civitium’s very own website, however, includes a blog posted on May 22nd by one Jason Shannon, the company’s CIO and the former lead wireless architect for EarthLink, where he was responsible for the “technical architecture” of Philadelphia’s wireless network. In discussing the technical viability of municipal wi-fi, Shannon is downright gloomy: “[E]xperience suggests that a dense, urban – scale municipal wi-fi network will likely fail to provide a universally available, technically viable, low-cost alternative to existing broadband services.” He describes the technology’s particular limitations at penetrating walls and heights.  Wi-fi can’t work without massive, financially prohibitive underlying infrastructure, he says, and even then, there exist obstacles beyond cost.
 
Just when, you wonder, did he come to those conclusions?
 

 
IN MID – JUNE, Mayor Nutter announced that a group of local investors — including former mayoral candidate Tom Knox — had taken over the wi-fi network for an undisclosed sum. They plan to complete the network and market to hospitals, universities and businesses that can buttress the infrastructure. Service for residents and visitors will be free, funded by advertisements. Greg Goldman, a former executive director of ­MANNA who heads Wireless Philadelphia’s nonprofit efforts — and who has overseen the distribution of about 1,500 computers to the needy — says much of what went wrong the first time can be attributed to “over-hyping” and the fact that any new technology experiences growing pains. He nevertheless calls it a “major accomplishment” that Philadelphia is now home to the largest wireless hot spot in the world. Given a chance, he says, the program’s new incarnation can help accomplish Street’s original goal: “I don’t say that the mere presence of this is enough to bridge the digital divide, but it certainly is a tool.”
 
Behind the deal was Councilman Bill Green Jr., a former software company CEO who wasn’t on Council when Wireless Philadelphia came to be. Green also maintains that wi-fi is a solid technology with a long shelf life and numerous applications. “This technology works as it’s supposed to work,” he says. “Outdoors.” Outdoors?
 
Green continues: “If you’re getting the Internet for free — as will now be the case — then you don’t mind sitting on your front stoop or next to the window to get a signal.”  Which creates quite an image — of the digital divide crossed and conquered, with a child wrapped in a winter coat, wearing thick gloves, sitting on her front stoop aiming for a wi-fi signal.
 
In the end, there’s no evidence that wi-fi has narrowed the digital divide, or will. If the goal truly was to spread Internet availability in impoverished areas, wouldn’t it have made far more sense to build computer centers in those neighborhoods, a plan bandied about in the early days of the administration but ultimately set aside for wi-fi? Could something so conventional, so unsexy, so obvious, actually have brought the city far closer to greatness?

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