The Philadelphia Story

Learning from a Municipal Wireless Pioneer
December 11, 2007 |

Joshua Breitbart authored this report. Naveen Lakshmipathy compiled the appendixes, while Sascha Meinrath served as editor.

The Philadelphia story told here is an analysis of one city's efforts to build a municipal wireless network. This report examines how Philadelphia's municipal wireless initiative helped shape the national debate regarding the need for public broadband infrastructure and the impact the project's successes and failures had on the local community. The Philadelphia story holds numerous lessons for decision-makers and regulators and is a powerful tool for understanding the interactions between network implementers and the constituencies these networks are supposed to serve.

The Philadelphia case study is presented in chronological order, with recommendations for how to improve community engagement highlighted throughout.

Context

Cities are under pressure to address the "digital divide" in their communities -- that is, the gap between those who have Internet access and those who do not -- an urgent problem that the federal government and most state governments have not addressed. The notion of "spending no tax dollars" in dealing with this problem was a driving principle behind the Philadelphia wireless initiative and shaped many of the project's outcomes. Philadelphia was a pioneer among large cities in using wireless technology to promote broadband adoption, and its actions have influenced how cities and towns design and pursue their municipal broadband projects.

Key Decision-Makers and Decisions

  • Philadelphia's chief information officer, Dianah Neff, initiated the project.
  • An executive committee, set up by the mayor's office and tasked to study Philadelphia's options for building a municipal wireless network, assessed the City's situation and solicited input from a wide range of stakeholders. The committee recommended nonprofit ownership of the network as a preferred business model.
  • Wireless Philadelphia (WP), the nonprofit formed to own the network, disregarded the executive committee's recommendation by accepting EarthLink's bid to own and operate the network. n Having given up ownership of the proposed network, WP was in the conflicting position of having to both promote EarthLink's services and hold the service provider accountable.
  • In addition to its marketing and oversight roles, Wireless Philadelphia focused on the project's public interest "digital inclusion" goals. However, WP has no capacity to provide direct services to its constituents, and operating expenses and debt service have eaten up its share of revenues. WP's current strategy to address digital inclusion has been to raise additional funding and establish one-to-one partnerships with nonprofit service providers to fulfill its original mandate.

Outcomes

  • Wireless Philadelphia disregarded the recommendations that grew out of the public process and that supported nonprofit ownership of their wireless network. Instead, WP yielded to political pressure when it accepted EarthLink's bid to own and operate the network.
  • WP has underperformed because it de-prioritized public input and constituent interests.
  • WP would have been more effective if it had assumed ownership of the network.
  • In the absence of substantial public control over the decision-making process, arguments in favor of public ownership of municipal and/or nonprofit networks may be disregarded in favor of a "free lunch" corporate ownership model.

Policy Recommendations

For city officials and decision-makers:

  • Involve all stakeholders.
  • Sustain open participation.
  • Promote horizontal relationships among stakeholders.
  • Be open with information.
  • Go offline.
  • Leverage existing assets.
  • Seriously consider the benefits of public/nonprofit ownership and open access business models.
  • Treat connectivity and digital inclusion as basic public rights.

For community members and local organizers:

  • Organize a coalition.
  • Get to know the key players and decision-makers.
  • Be the media and report on the process.
  • Do your own research and disseminate it within your community.
  • Start a community wireless project.
  • Remain actively involved in all steps of the process.
For the full report, please see the PDF attached below.

Related Programs