Philadelphia Counts Down To Citywide Wireless

The build-out of Philadelphia's city-wide wireless mesh network could start as soon as early June, with the first phase completed by the end of the summer, the primary administrator said

May 5, 2006

4 Min Read
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Deployment of Philadelphia's citywide wireless mesh network could start in a matter of weeks after a key joint city council committee this week approved the contract between the city and EarthLink. That means the first phase of the project could be completed by the end of the summer.

That's the word from Derek Pew, the interim CEO of Wireless Philadelphia, the not-for-profit organization that is overseeing the development and administration of the network. Eventually slated to cover 135 square miles, the first phase will cover 15 square miles and could start being deployed in early June -- if the city council gives final approval in two weeks as expected, Pew said in an interview Friday.

Construction and testing of that first section will take about three months and the rest of the build-out will start immediately after that, according to Pew.

"I'm still hopeful it will be all done in the first quarter of 2007, but EarthLink is hedging their bets a bit and saying it'll be done a bit later," Pew said. Even if EarthLink is right, it certainly should be completed in the second quarter of next year, Pew said.

When it's done, the network will provide access at a minimum speed of 1 Mbps -- if all goes according to plan."The contract calls for 1 Mbps but if, after testing in the first phase, we find it's only feasible to provide, say, 900 Kbps, we'll have to renegotiate with EarthLink," Pew said.

Pew said it's just as important to discuss the social goals of network and the fact that Philadelphia taxpayers are assuming no risk, than it is to discuss the technical details. Rather, EarthLink is assuming the financial risk and is committed to spending $22 million in the next 10 years to build out the network. That amount is a paltry amount compared to creating a citywide wired network, Pew noted.

"It's not nearly as expensive as building pipes and digging up streets," he said. "They still have to sell subscriptions, but it'll be easier for them (to be profitable) than with other types of networks." In addition, Wireless Philadelphia, which is responsible for overseeing the network, is funded by grants, not by taxpayer dollars, Pew said.

The wireless network will be open so that anybody who can pay an entry fee, which Pew estimated to be about $15,000, and can show that they can manage accounts, can become an ISP. That, Pew said, should lead to many ISPs, both big and small, and not just Earthlink.

"I hope local providers jump in," Pew said. "But, if you're somebody like AOL and you have a lot of (dial-up) accounts in Philadelphia at 56 Kbps, you now can move all those customers to 1 Mbps service. Think of the services you could offer at 1 Mbps."And what of existing service Internet service providers such as Comcast, which is the city's primary cable provider, and Verizon, which opposed the network and successfully lobbied the Pennsylvania state legislature to limit future municipally-sponsored networks?

"I wouldn't be surprised if Comcast took advantage of the network," Pew said. If I get Comcast at home for cable, which I do, and I want to go outside and use, say, their voice-over-IP, why wouldn't I buy my (wireline and wireless access) all bundled up from Comcast?"

As for Verizon, he noted that the company has already decreased some DSL prices and that it also is busy deploying higher bandwidth alternatives for a variety of services such as IP-based television.A big part of Pew's job will be making sure the network meets the city's social goals, which he broke down into four areas: helping disadvantaged users bridge the digital divide, making neighborhoods better, aiding in tourism, and helping the city's government operate more efficiently.

Of those goals, the most important, Pew said, is closing the digital divide.

"We're happy to have somebody else (EarthLink) put the network in," Pew said. "The real effort (by the city) has to be on the lasting part -- changing the way people think about what the Internet means in their lives, their careers, and educational advancement, and how they learn things that will help their families. That will have a monumental civic impact."0

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