July 28, 2005
The Philadelphia Business Journal, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Philadelphia Daily News all have articles on the latest wireless pilot project launched Tuesday which gives a free year of wireless internet access to (one square mile of) Philadelphia’s Olney neighborhood.
Basically, the City of Philadelphia has formed a non-profit organization (Philadelphia Wireless) which will seek funding, review bids, and coordinate the implementation of a city-wide 802.11b wireless network. Once the infrastructure is in place private companies will be able to purchase and resell bandwidth to individuals, in theory allowing residents access to broadband service at a cost comparable to dial-up.
There are many outstanding questions about the project, one of which is raised in the Daily News article:
It’s not clear how many residents in the pilot-program neighborhoods are using the service. [Dianah] Neff [Philly’s CIO,] said officials haven’t done surveys to see if people are using it or even have computers to connect to it.
For some background, there was an article back in February in the New York Times on Philadelphia’s wireless project. There are also more detailed interviews with Dianah Neff, Philly’s CIO, over at Mobile Pipeline and on Broadbad Wireless Access World. And the Wireless Philadelphia site has FAQs and their Business Plan [PDF].
While I was initially skeptical, I’ve started to come around to the idea. It’s obviously not the complete solution to the digital divide in this city, but it may be one piece in the puzzle. The city is certainly in the best position to coordinate the construction of a complete and uniform network.
The model they’ve selected does not shut out private business from participating, although it does change the paradigm and possibly consumer expectations. While new kinds of service will be available to subscribers, this project may inhibit private companies from developing and maintaining competing infrastructure.