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?

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?