There’s something in the air
Philadelphia might not have a Super Bowl victory to brag about, but the city can brag about building the largest community-wide wireless broadband (Wi-Fi) network in the country. That is no small feat, considering what city officials have been through so far to build the network. Facing opposition from private high-speed Internet service providers (ISPs), critics and the state legislature, Philadelphia nonetheless is scheduled to issue a request for proposals (RFP) this month for the construction, management and maintenance of a municipal wireless network covering 135 square miles of commercial buildings, public spaces and residences in the city. The project is believed to be the most closely watched municipal wireless Internet project thus far — partly because of its scale and timing but also because of the controversy it has generated.
Philadelphia’s attempt to make high-speed Internet access widely available to residents builds on a grassroots phenomenon spreading throughout the country. Thousands of independent and private Wi-Fi hot spots have been turned on in major cities and small towns all over the United States in the last few years. Some hot spot operators, such as Starbucks and Fed Ex stores, provide public Internet access for fees ranging from $6 per hour to $29.99 per month. Many hotels offer the service for free or for a nominal charge. In cities such as Seattle and New York, associations of community activists have set up free wireless Internet coverage in parks and heavily traveled pedestrian byways.
The municipal Wi-Fi craze is an attempt by governments to expand on and unify those islands of broadband availability. It also can be linked to a much broader trend of local governments stepping in to fill the gaps left by private sector broadband providers.
The Philadelphia story
If Philadelphia leaders get their way, by late 2006 most of the city’s residents will be able to surf the Internet from almost anywhere in the city. Philly’s Wi-Fi project, estimated to cost about $10.5 million and begin construction by late summer, will consist of several thousand Wi-Fi access points, which each use 802.11b technology to spread wireless Internet coverage over 300-square-foot-by-500-square-foot areas. When tied together, the access points become a network with many of the same functions and as much reliability as traditional telecommunications networks.
|City||Number of hot spots|
|São Paulo, Brazil||495|
|SOURCE: JiWire.com, March 1, 2005|
The city is aiming for a service that will cost users about $15 to $25 a month, which is at least $10 to $15 less than wired broadband services available from telephone companies and cable TV firms. “What we want is broadband speed at dial-up rates,” says Dianah Neff, chief information officer for the city and head of the Wireless Philadelphia Executive Committee. “We want everyone in Philadelphia to have affordable access.”
That notion raised the ire of the leading telephone company in the region, New York-based Verizon Communications, which late last year protested the plan. Verizon argued that a low-cost offering from the city would compete with its services, and that telecommunications companies should be allowed to bid to provide such services themselves. The telephone company lobbied the Pennsylvania legislature to pass a law, Act 183, giving private operators “the right of first refusal” to provide the services. Since the Pennsylvania law passed, other legislation designed to block municipal wireless projects has been initiated in several states, including Colorado, Indiana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oregon and Texas.
Both Neff and Jim Baller, principal at the Baller Herbst Law Group, a Washington firm that has become involved in municipal Wi-Fi cases, say that Verizon and other municipal Wi-Fi opponents jumped the gun. They did not realize, Neff says, that the city has no interest in operating its own network and does, in fact, want private sector service providers to be involved, something to which the RFP attests. “I never talked about bringing this project inside government,” she says. “I don’t think we need to start creating skill sets that we don’t have.”
Verizon, however, tells a different version of the story. Sharon Shaffer, manager of Verizon’s media relations for central and eastern Pennsylvania, says the company was aware all along that Philadelphia intended to work with the private sector to build its network. Shaffer also points out that Philadelphia was exempt from the rules of Act 183, and that Verizon told city officials early on that the company would not stand in the way of their municipal Wi-Fi plans.
“We’re very interested in the RFP and in competing for the business,” Shaffer says. She also says Verizon and its technology partner, Brampton, Ontario, Canada-based Nortel Networks, forged an agreement months ago with Philadelphia officials to conduct a 12-month Wi-Fi trial separate from the city’s RFP process. The trial is scheduled to start this summer, before construction begins on the citywide network.
In the months since Act 183 passed, the Wireless Philadelphia Executive Committee has developed the base requirements for the network, which would build on a current city pilot project that uses a small-scale Wi-Fi mesh architecture. Neff expects to receive at least eight to 10 responses to the RFP from vendors, systems integrators, ISPs and Verizon.
Neff says the city is being open-minded about its technology requirements, in that the network ultimately may use only Wi-Fi or a combination of Wi-Fi and WiMax technology — a similar innovation designed for metro-wide wireless connections over the regulated radio spectrum. Neff also says the RFP will require minimum data rates of 1 megabit per second downstream and upstream, nomadic roaming capabilities, multiple levels of security, and a tunneling capability to allow users to access their corporate networks via the municipal architecture.
The company or consortium that wins the RFP also will have to construct a “proof of concept network” covering about 10 to 15 square miles to demonstrate scalability, Neff says. Philadelphia already has worked with Alpharetta, Ga.-based government consultant Civitium to complete a radio frequency analysis, which will help the contractor plan the network.
Broadband fever spreads
Internationally, the United States ranks 13th in broadband penetration. Smaller countries with many fewer broadband service providers, such as Korea and Japan, rank higher. In Korea, which has the highest penetration, broadband has become a national bragging right, largely because the Korean government has made rapid broadband availability a top policy matter.
By contrast, the free enterprise competition that is supposed to drive rapid innovation in the United States seems to be yielding less impressive results. Here, major regulated telephone companies, such as Verizon, have spent the last few years telling Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that they could not expand their limited broadband availability without further deregulation, something which the FCC began to respond to late last year.
But the intervening gap has encouraged broadband-aware municipalities to pursue their own agendas. Some have explored Wi-Fi options, and others looked into fiber-based networks. Cities like Philadelphia have done so precisely because the private sector has not kept up with their hopes, according to Baller. Verizon says broadband services are more widely available than city governments tend to suggest, and that cost is the reason more people do not subscribe to the services — though the company argues that its own $29.95 broadband service package is affordable for many households.
Meanwhile, the grassroots success of Wi-Fi, while encouraging, also has not been fast, expansive or uniform enough for the tastes of government officials like Neff. “With grassroots growth, you have no roaming capability and no consistency,” she says. “Ubiquitous access doesn’t happen when you have all these little groups doing their own thing.”
In increasing numbers, municipalities have taken up the cause, either announcing their own trials and projects, or trying to assemble projects to attract private investment. Besides Philadelphia’s project, others have cropped up in Atlanta, San Francisco, Las Vegas and New York. Atlanta has outsourced its Wi-Fi project to a private firm, locally based Biltmore Communications. In Las Vegas, the city’s transportation department is operating a test network that soon will be evaluated for expansion.
The benefits of municipal Wi-Fi coverage are not difficult to fathom. Coverage in public places can be convenient for all residents, notably business people on the go. City governments also can take advantage of the networks to improve efficiency, wirelessly linking offices and departments, and providing constant Internet access for employees in the field.
But many municipalities also have more altruistic goals in mind. Because Wi-Fi is a much less expensive technology than other forms of Internet access, such as digital subscriber lines provided by telephone companies and cable modem access available from cable TV companies, municipal government leaders see it as a viable method of making broadband access available to low-income neighborhoods. “Few, if any, municipalities are interested in providing Wi-Fi networks just to cater to white-collar business people,” Baller says, adding that most are interested in getting affordable access to “unserved or under-served populations,” to spur urban revitalization, economic development, education, telemedicine and improved homeland security.
|City||Number of hot spots|
|*The U.S. has a total of 23,891 publicly listed Wi-Fi access locations, with Texas having the highest number of any state: 1,736.|
|SOURCE: JiWire.com, March 1, 2005|
Philadelphia’s citywide wireless network is just one element in Mayor John Street’s effort to make computers, broadband access and services available to poor Philadelphia residents through subsidized programs. As part of the project, the city will offer subsidies to low-income residents for the service. “Government is about providing equal opportunity,” Neff says.
Despite those well-meaning goals, observers of the municipal Wi-Fi phenomenon say some communities hoping for quick-build Wi-Fi networks really do not know what they are getting into. The Washington-based New Millenium Research Council (NMRC) recently completed a study suggesting that the social benefits people like Neff and Baller claim are somewhat dubious. “[Municipal Wi-Fi] is not going to close the digital divide,” says David McClure, president of the Washington-based U.S. Internet Industry Association, who participated in the study. “You can’t solve a 20-year problem just by putting up a Wi-Fi antenna.” McClure says that network ubiquity will be difficult to achieve and maintain in inner-city neighborhoods, and that even low-cost service may not be enough to build usage without further education.
Steven Titch, a senior fellow with the Chicago-based Heartland Institute who also was involved in the study, says, “I fail to see why Philadelphia needs to spend $10 million in taxpayer money to do what others [broadband providers] are already doing.”
However, Neff insists, “This project will not be built with city money.” She says some combination of public and private investment might be used.
The NMRC report actually has been greeted with its own share of criticism. The council is affiliated with Washington-based Issue Dynamics, a public affairs consulting firm whose telecommunications clients include Verizon.
Baller says municipalities are receiving much grief for trying to jump-start the expansion of broadband services. It recalls the birth of cable TV, he says, something that municipalities started because the private sector was not spreading availability fast enough. Communities later sold their systems to private firms that got the message.
America’s largest cities are not the only municipalities looking to catch a technology tiger by the tail. Grand Haven, Mich., a vacation getaway on the shores of Lake Michigan, actually offers a nearly postcard-perfect picture of how municipal Wi-Fi can work without the level of controversy stirred up in Philadelphia. But it is also a model that will not be easy to repeat in large urban areas.
City Manager Pat McInnis says officials had been thinking about a municipal wireless project for a while before they were approached by local ISP Ottawa Wireless about providing coverage throughout the 5.8-square-mile city. The service was launched last year by the public electric utility, which is owned by the same family that owns the ISP.
The small geographic area and low population density made the network easy and inexpensive to build. Before the ISP sold the city on its plan, the municipal government was prepared to spend $60,000 on a fiber network linking separate city offices, but the ISP was able to set it up using Wi-Fi for about $1,500.
Grand Haven’s size also makes it a less desirable market for big telephone carriers and cable TV companies, so the local ISP or some kind of municipally driven project, were its best opportunities to stay in the 21st century communications loop. “Mostly, it’s affordable access for the citizens here — $20 per month instead of the $36 or so they’d spend on somebody else’s broadband,” McInnis says, adding the city also is looking at how the network can help make government processes more efficient.
The network’s deployment was not completely flawless. “People were concerned how visible the antennas would be, and our city council had a mandate for no new utility poles,” McInnis says. He also says there was a complaint from the local township that the network coverage actually extended beyond the city’s boundaries.
The ISP accommodated the city’s utility pole mandate by attaching the antennas to existing poles and other existing structures, such as traffic lights. McInnis says the company also has made other network adjustments without delay. “The problems have been minimal,” he says. “Most people don’t even know the antennas are there.”
Having completed the Grand Haven network, Ottawa Wireless is trying to win municipal Wi-Fi projects outside the state. The firm recently took over construction of Rio Rancho, N.M.’s network, a project which previously had been stalled over that city’s contract dispute with another service provider.
Grand Haven has a contractual option to purchase its network, something McInnis says officials might explore within the next few years. “It’s kind of like when the cable TV industry came out. [Their success] caused most of us to want to kick ourselves and say that we should have done that,” McInnis says. “Now, you’ve got big cable companies that raise their rates to a level not everyone can afford. We look at Wi-Fi, and we think that we’d hate for this to get away from us.”
Dan O’Shea is the news editor for American City & County’s sister publications Telephony and Wireless Review.