It’s become common for airports, coffee shops and public parks in trendy city neighborhoods to offer high-speed wireless Internet access. People sit down, pop open their laptops and connect to the Web. Philadelphia thinks that low-income residents and small-business owners should have the same opportunity. That notion has led to a well-publicized plan to provide wireless service across all 135 square miles of the city.
It began with a briefing paper that chief information officer Dianah L. Neff wrote three years ago for Mayor John Street. She explained how wireless connections could be used to bring affordable Internet access to residents and businesses. The mayor, very much interested in technology, was sold on the concept. He asked Neff to run a pilot project. Within two months of starting the experiment in JFK Plaza, also known as Love Park, more than 1,200 people had registered with the city to connect. With that initial success, it was time to get down to business.
Although the city originally planned to finance the network itself, things didn’t turn out that way. Wireless Philadelphia, the nonprofit created to run the initiative, contracted with EarthLink to fund, build and maintain the network. The city’s role is to oversee it and take responsibility for an “inclusion” program for low-income residents that will provide cheap connections, inexpensive or free computers, and training on how to use the equipment.
Another group also needs a helping hand: Many of the city’s 26,000 small businesses, typically those with fewer than 10 people, aren’t hooked up to high-speed Internet. “They couldn’t afford it, or they didn’t know how to use it,” Neff says. So her office is working with the Chamber of Commerce to enable these firms to get connected and learn how to use the Internet to bolster their businesses.
Prior to her arrival in Philadelphia, Neff, 58, had spent two years in San Diego, where she was key in getting the city to identify and map the 70,000 miles of fiber running underneath city streets to help with economic development. Before that, she played a leading role in making Palo Alto, California, the first U.S. city with a Web site.
This September, after five years in Philadelphia, Neff left her job as CIO to work for a consulting firm that advises municipalities and regions on wireless broadband projects. She took a lot of heat for her decision because the city had given technology business to the company. Under pressure, the mayor asked for an ethics probe, which quickly concluded that there was no violation of conflict-of-interest rules.
Wireless was not Neff’s only focus in Philadelphia. She also helped redo its Web site, created a sophisticated records-management system for all of its properties and saved the city considerable money by undertaking nearly two-dozen projects that resulted in many state-of-the-art systems.
Meanwhile, the first 15-square-mile “proof of concept” area for wireless was to be completed this month. The goal is to cover the entire city by the second half of next year.
It might seem that the wireless initiative wouldn’t matter much to the school system, since it has its own wireless network. But, in fact, children and their parents need computing power at home, too.
The Philadelphia school district has started a program called FamilyNet that provides access to testing materials, the history of each child’s school performance and other resources for parents and children. But many low-income families can’t take advantage of it. Neff worked closely with the school system’s technology staff to enable schoolchildren to work on computers and access the Internet from home. “The vision she’s brought to Wireless Philadelphia, and the fact that she’s pulled it off, is very exciting,” says Patricia Renzulli, senior vice president of technology for the Philadelphia School District.
As part of the city’s agreement with EarthLink, 10,000 computers will be provided to needy families, along with training and support. Those families will be charged a monthly access fee of $10 a month, half the price the city intends to charge other wireless users. Wireless Philadelphia also has plans to engage in fund-raising so it can provide the same deal to a total of 125,000 households.
— Ellen Perlman
Photo by Ed Wheeler