Thursday, September 02, 2004

Philadelphia wants to go wireless

Philadelphia Inquirer | 09/02/2004 | Another first for city? Street seeks wireless Web access for everyone

By Murray Dubin
Inquirer Staff Writer

If the plan works, a tourist could access movie listings on a laptop in Rittenhouse Square, a Penn student could e-mail her parents from the White Dog Cafe, and a cabbie could Web-surf on a break at the Melrose Diner.

The plan would also eliminate a digital divide between rich and poor and enhance the city's image as a technological leader.

To that end, the Street administration announced yesterday that it wants Philadelphia to be the nation's first major city with wireless access to the Internet everywhere within its borders.

Mayor Street has named a 17-member Wireless Committee to investigate the feasibility of the plan and report back to him by November.

If the committee reports that the wireless plan makes financial sense and can be sustained annually, installation of the necessary hardware on city light poles will begin in February, said Dianah Neff, the city's chief information officer. She said the work would take a year and cost about $10 million.

Neff likened the possible effect of wireless communication across the city's 135 square miles to the impact of "the Internet in the '90s."

She said the committee would look at businesses, schools, residents and tourists and how this new outdoor wireless technology would affect them. She said that Street wanted some aspect of the technology to remain free to residents, but that the committee would also look at possible fees for use, funding sources, and partnerships with businesses.

She added: "We will create a wireless-communications infrastructure that will offer solutions and benefits to students who don't live on campus, as well as to parents and small businesses who otherwise would not be able to access the World Wide Web."

The technology that she described would permit anyone with a laptop computer or a handheld device such as a BlackBerry to have high-speed access to the Internet from any outdoor location in the city, from Citizens Bank Park to a back deck in Andorra. The technology, which would require 1,000 to 2,000 shoe-box-size hardware boxes on light poles, would be designed for outdoor use but "might bleed" indoors, she said, meaning that a laptop-computer user in the kitchen as well as one on the front porch could use it.

Remark: and of course iFI Phones ;-)

Asked how profit-making wireless providers such as Comcast and Verizon might feel about that, she said the committee was studying the issue. "We're not doing this behind closed doors," she added.

She said she would meet with both companies.

"Philadelphia hasn't had a first in technology since the Univac," Street said in a statement, referring to the first computer designed for commercial use, built in a city factory in 1951.

"Just like roads and transportation were keys to our past, a digital infrastructure and wireless technology are keys to our future," Street said.

Neff said the mayor insisted that the project be "cost-neutral" to the city - which means that the committee will also explore funding sources from foundations, private businesses, and the federal government. She added that the money needed to sustain the technology was expected to be $1.5 million a year.

Edward Schwartz, president of the nonprofit Institute for the Study of Civic Values and a member of the Wireless Committee, said he believed "it will be more than possible to raise" $10 million.

He said Philadelphia would be the only city "able to extend the wireless capability of college students and teachers."

"Wireless is the next big thing. What this initiative does is telegraph to everybody that technology matters here, that the future matters."

Neff said there were both risks and opportunities in becoming the first big city to be entirely wireless-accessible.

"We need this digital infrastructure," she said. "The time is right."

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