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?


 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.”