What other cities should learn from Philly's failed municipal broadband effort - Technical.ly Philly

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Mar. 4, 2015 12:49 pm

What other cities should learn from Philly’s failed municipal broadband effort

A recent FCC ruling paves the way for more cities to jump in to the internet game. Philadelphia was a pioneer in that arena. Wireless Philadelphia — with its positive legacy and fatal shortcomings — offers plenty of lessons.

The FCC says internet access should be regulated like a public utility.

(Photo courtesy of Flickr user when I was a bird, used under a Creative Commons license)

Last Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission mirrored statements made by President Barack Obama on net neutrality by voting to “reclassify” internet access as a public utility. At the same meeting, the FCC also exercised its legal authority to override state law, which was restricting two cities in Tennessee and North Carolina from expanding their municipally-owned broadband networks.

While the FCC’s new framework will immediately apply only to the municipalities that petitioned for federal intervention in superseding their state legislatures (Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C.), FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has set a daring precedent by voting to allow municipalities to circumvent state broadband laws. According to the FCC, about 20 states have laws restricting community broadband services.

The FCC’s recent vote will cause undeniable tension between ISPs and local governments, which could quickly become competitors. Competition may drive growth and ultimately benefit the consumer, but Big Telecom has shown little interest in fostering those perks — especially not in big cities, and especially not in Philadelphia.

"On a symbolic level, the FCC has extended an open invitation to cities to step into the broadband market."
Joshua Breitbart, author

Philadelphia knows from experience.

The history of Wireless Philadelphia

In August 2004, Philadelphia was trailblazing on the then-infantile municipal broadband front. It was one of the first major cities to attempt to provide broadband access for the poor and digitally illiterate. Notably, Philly was the first city to offer up a viable remedy.

The solution: establish a publicly-owned and operated citywide wireless network, rendering broadband easily accessible and affordable.

The initiative was called Wireless Philadelphia, an unprecedented municipal endeavor responsible for paving those first few steps across the digital divide. Supervised by former Chief Information Officer Dianah Neff, the initiative was ambitious, prophetic and arguably ahead of its time. Unfortunately, it fell short.

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Wireless Philadelphia, the actual nonprofit tasked with overseeing the network, was to entertain bids from private ISPs, one of which would be contracted to build the broadband infrastructure. Sensing the heat of the city’s breath on its neck, a griping Verizon soon became frantic, according to an Associated Press report at the time. Feeling threatened, the company began lobbying the Commonwealth for harsher restrictions on municipal broadband projects.

Joshua Breitbart is the author of a comprehensive case study on Wireless Philadelphia, The Philadelphia Story, which was published by the left-leaning New America Foundation. He writes that Verizon lobbyists led “a successful effort in the Pennsylvania state legislature in November 2004 to restrict municipal broadband projects.”

Political ambivalence. Corporate antipathy.

“They were aware of a potential source of competition,” Breitbart said of Verizon in a recent interview with Technical.ly Philly. “They’d never hold a press conference to announce that they’re panicked, but they’ll roll out their full range of power to block Philadelphia’s entrance into the market.”

Rebounding, the city was resilient in negotiating an exemption with the state, ultimately forcing Verizon to pump its brakes in Harrisburg for fear of instigating a PR disaster, according to an Inquirer report at the time. Yet, Wireless Philadelphia remained under unbearable pressure — this time, not just from Big Telecom.

This was a domestic issue. Local politicians sought to cap the city’s involvement with the project — specifically, Councilman Frank Rizzo, Jr. and, surprisingly, then-Councilman Michael Nutter.

And so, under mounting pressure from telecom giants Verizon and Comcast (neither placed a bid to work with Wireless Philadelphia), and desperately lacking financial allocation from public sources, Wireless Philadelphia found itself taking a bum deal from EarthLink. Not only was EarthLink entrusted with building the infrastructure, but by accepting the bid, Wireless Philadelphia ceded ownership and operation of the network to the ISP.

(From a New York Times article from 2005: “On the face of it, the fact that the city is moving ahead without Comcast’s involvement – indeed, over Comcast’s open derision – raises a lot of intriguing questions not only about wireless Internet services but also about how much brotherly love has been lost between the nation’s largest cable operator and Philadelphia.”)

“It’s very difficult for local policy members to turn down private investment,” Breitbart said of the decision, which all but ignored public input. That initial engagement with the community was what made the project seem so refreshing at first.

In Breitbart’s opinion, the moment Wireless Philadelphia accepted the EarthLink bid was the moment things went sour. “They went behind closed doors, and when they came out, they made a decision that was counter to that deliberative [public] process,” he said.

That was October of 2005. In August of 2006, without official notice, Neff left her job as the city’s CIO. At that point, EarthLink had not yet begun construction on the project. [Editor’s note: Neff did not respond to our requests for comment.] The following summer, the network tested successfully on a small scale. Soon, the program would offer residents internet access for $9.95/month, subsidizing EarthLink’s typical $20/month rate. Absolutely affordable. Just one problem: WiFi is an imperfect technology at the time, and Earthlink underestimated the scale of the task at hand.

Cell tower

(Photo by Flickr user John Taylor, used under a Creative Commons license)

The company’s framework was flawed, access points installed in street lights were buggy and connection speeds were well under what was advertised. By May 2008, EarthLink admitted it had garnered just over 6,000 customers. Within a month, the ISP withdrew itself from the project. What happened?

Simple: You can provide affordable broadband access, but if the digitally illiterate don’t have computers and proper training, what’s the use? It’s like giving an English speaker a Mandarin dictionary.

Philadelphia’s expectations were high; the city was eager, optimistic and, by the end of the decade, altogether too quick to chalk Wireless Philadelphia up as a failure. Still, the project was critical in laying the groundwork for future endeavors. Some of the hardware is still in use for an emergency communications network.

“It inspired a movement,” said Breitbart. “There’s a real legacy in terms of a citywide movement towards digital access and justice in Philadelphia.” Wireless Philadelphia may have turned out to be an unsustainable model, but it was the first large-scale solution for narrowing the digital divide.

Wireless Philadelphia’s legacy

Fast-forward to Feb. 17, 2009: President Obama signs the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the federal government’s bid to pull the nation out of deep recession. A subset of the stimulus included the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, aimed at bridging the digital divide (at this point fiercely impacting the economy) by offering impoverished areas funding for municipal broadband ventures.

Enter the Freedom Rings Partnership — or, what would eventually become KEYSPOT — two conjunctive digital inclusion programs working in tandem to narrow the digital divide. The partnership was widely a collaborative effort led by the city’s Office of Innovation & Technology, the Urban Affairs Coalition and a small army of nonprofits and community organizations.

Thanks to some seriously strategic grant writing, the two-headed beast boasted both access and support, picking up where its predecessor Wireless Philadelphia left off. Plus, it received a combined $18.1 million in federal funding.

“[Wireless Philadelphia] got everyone excited and teed up about the possibility of having some sort of broadband infrastructure across the city,” said Andrew Buss, OIT’s current director of innovation management. “That allowed us to really mobilize all those different groups and implement a very successful project.”

Quick to remember Wireless Philadelphia’s lack of hardware and tech education, KEYSPOT established over 70 public computing centers across the city. Each site was staffed with technical support specialists.

"To any other city trying to do this kind of work, you have to plan to involve community organizations that will bring a different approach."
Andrew Buss, City of Philadelphia

“I still say KEYSPOT was one of the most creative things the city has ever done,” said Buss. “It was a very difficult project to implement.”

The federal grant lasted KEYSPOT three years, according to Buss. With an additional $1 million in city funding, the initiative has been able to keep 50 of its public computing centers open to the public. Since the first day of its digital inclusion crusade, KEYSPOT has slashed the number of internet-lacking Philadelphians considerably, helping to drop it from an excruciating 40 percent to a near-palatable 20 percent. The key to KEYSPOT’s success? Collaboration.

“The reason you need that whole network of organizations,” said Breitbart, “is because the last 20 percent of people to start using the internet are not the same as the first 20 percent.” Buss agrees that community is crucial.

“To any other city trying to do this kind of work, you have to plan to involve community organizations that will bring a different approach,” said Buss. “And not just involve them, but let them do what they do very well, because they’ve been thinking about these topics for a long time.”

Cities should strive to make utilities public, as long as those utilities are managed effectively. Small rural towns, and cities like Cedar Falls, Iowa, are capable of owning and operating public utilities because of the small-scale municipalities that govern them. More often than not, they don’t house Big Telecom headquarters.

“On a symbolic level, the FCC has extended an open invitation to cities to step into the broadband market,” says Breitbart. Still, he said, “Big cities have a unique challenge.” That challenge? Our incumbent ISPs.

The key for digital inclusion in Philadelphia, then, is to forget about building our own network. Rather, it’s to make use of what we’ve got. “Think more about what a healthy digital ecosystem is for Philadelphia,” said Breitbart. “Comcast is going to be a part of that.”

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Tony Abraham

Tony Abraham covers Philly's social impact space as lead reporter for Generocity. A former Technical.ly reporter in Delaware and Philly, Tony also occasionally writes for Red Bull Amaphiko and WHYY Newsworks. Though he lives on his Twitter timeline, the Temple University alumnus calls Fishtown home.

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