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?


 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.”