Diversity & Inclusion
Digital access / Internet

How those WiFi kiosks can help bridge Philly’s digital divide

LinkPHL is part of a broader effort, said OIT's Andrew Buss.

A rendering of a LinkPHL kiosk near 17th and Walnut. (Courtesy image)
When the first 100 WiFi kiosks from LinkPHL start to pepper our city’s streets next year, they’ll join a broader Philly push to increase access to the internet and digital services.

“Though not tied directly, they’re complementary to our initiative,” said Andrew Buss, Innovation Director at the Office of Innovation and Technology. “They’ll add more functionality for folks in the city.”

The kiosks, a product of New York’s Intersection, are already live in London and New York. They offer access to free WiFi, phone calls, use of Google Maps and a charging station. Eighty of the first 100 kiosks will be located in Center City and University City; the remaining 20 will be located in “commercial corridors in other sections of the city.”

Buss said the kiosks fit into the broader goal of providing more digital access, a task that at a more general level is in the hands of the KEYSPOT initiative, which closed out 2016 having served 690,753 users at 48 facilities across town.

“Millions of people using the platform means a more connected city,” said Intersection’s VP of communications, Stacey Levine. There’s also a direct economic impact for users, the exec said: the company estimates it has saved users $42 million since launching in carrier data costs. The company said after recuperating the investments made, the kiosks are projected to generate the city around $450,000 in revenue through advertising.

(A big question with no answer yet: What’s going to happen to all that valuable user data? Levine said the company and the city are crafting the privacy policy for the platform and declined to comment further.)

The platform’s rollout reminds us of Wireless Philadelphia, the failed attempt to bring a network of low-cost WiFi hotspots to Philly. In a similar vein, a 19-organization collective was spawned in February out of the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia, banding together unlikely partners such as Comcast and Verizon with advocacy groups like the Media Mobilizing Project (MMP).

The collective is known as the Digital Literacy Alliance, and it’s been tasked with backing digital literacy and inclusion programs in Philly, convening stakeholders and partners from diverse sectors and offering guidance on digital literacy programming and policy-making.

For MMP’s director of policy, Hannah Sassaman, the LinkPHL platform’s rollout is a sign of extraordinary demand and need for public access to the internet, but there are caveats:

“We can’t treat street-level WiFi as a solution to a pernicious digital divide in Philly, one perpetuated by high prices and monopoly control over high speed access to our businesses and homes,” said the activist and Soros Justice Fellow.

The bigger question for MMP is getting updates from Comcast on the discounted internet access won in the franchise in 2015 and  how many city institutions they’ve provided with services.

“We look forward to continuing to tackle the digital divide with vibrant community institutions through the Digital Literacy Alliance and its grantmaking and policy work,” said Sassaman.

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