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?


 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.”