Contrarian: Wi-Fi? Because We Can

It’s time for Philly to take the lead

FOR ABOUT A week this summer, the most popular article on the New York Times website was a bleating Tom Friedman column that lamented how America is losing its high-tech edge. For evidence, Friedman echoed the complaint of a New York politician named Andrew Rasiej, who worries that the Big Apple is just small potatoes compared with other world-class cities, considering its crummy access to wireless “wi-fi” Internet.

“Mr. Rasiej wants to see New York follow Philadelphia, which decided it wouldn’t wait for private companies to provide connectivity to all,” Friedman wrote. “Instead, Philly made it a city-led project — like sewers and electricity. The whole city will be a ‘hot zone,’ where any resident anywhere with a computer, cell phone or PDA will have cheap high-speed wi-fi access to the Internet.”

That’s pretty astounding. Here’s a guy running for office in New York who thinks he can get votes by holding up Philadelphia as an object of innovative envy. The last time this happened, New York had to send someone down here on a stagecoach to buy lightning rods from Ben Franklin.

Mayor Street’s wireless Philadelphia plan has got gums flapping all over the tech world. It’s such an unusual position for the city, to win acclaim as some kind of high-tech trailblazer, that the locals have greeted wi-fi mostly with dour suspicion: We’re the first big city to try this thing? There must be something wrong with it.

I was skeptical, too. Then Verizon tried to get a bill through Harrisburg that would strangle wireless Philadelphia in the cradle. Verizon also wanted to prevent every town in Pennsylvania that relies on its services from even trying wi-fi. That made me a believer. If the phone monopoly is worried enough to sic its lobbyists on the legislature, wireless Philly is a winner.

I don’t dismiss the doubters, though. Philadelphia, after all, is more likely to be linked with worsts than firsts these days: worst loss of residents, worst vacant housing, worst tax rates. It’s even won dubious distinction for having the fattest and most depressed citizenry in America. But wi-fi is a bet on the one quality this city possesses that no one can deny: It’s big.

Philadelphia, for all its problems, is a jumbo-sized consumer and customer. No doubt Verizon would love to sell multimillion-dollar wireless services to police, fire and other city departments. Instead, EarthLink is offering to build the city an entire wi-fi system for free, just to get in on something bold and new. Street’s people may promote wireless Philadelphia as a great new public service, but it’s really about workforce productivity. Access for everyone else is just a big fat cherry on top.