Five known members of Philly’s technology community discussed the impact of Wireless Philadelphia, the city’s digital divide and its application for federal broadband stimulus dollars Tuesday evening.
Local technology leaders and policymakers agree that lessons learned from the failed initiative put the city in a unique spot to advance its technology foundations, and they are hopeful that the city is awarded federal grants for the Digital Philadelphia Broadband Initiative.
Read about the history of Wireless Philadelphia.
More than 75 business leaders, policymakers, academics and activists filed into the Connelly Auditorium at the University of the Arts’ Terra Hall to hear the panel discuss broadband policy in the city.
“There’s really no other municipal network that has quite the resonant experience, not only in the tech side of networks but of its downfalls,” said Derek Pew, CEO of Network Acquisition which now owns the Wireless Philadelphia assets.
“Something can happen. We’re in a unique place, where a large asset, history, experience and desire have come together.”
Wilco Electronic Systems: $31 million
Philadelphia Housing Authority: $2.4 million
Enterprise Center Community Development Corporation: $1.5 million
Philadelphia Prison Society: $1.2 million
Delaware County Library System: $300,000
Mt. Airy Community Services Corporation: $96,800
Source: NTIA Applications
In August, the City of Philadelphia submitted applications requesting $35 million of the $4.6 billion available from federal broadband stimulus grants for middle mile infrastructure, broadband adoption and computer centers, Technically Philly reported Tuesday afternoon.
Though finalists are not likely to be announced until November, City Chief Technology Officer Allan Frank detailed the application review process and offered hope for audience members.
“If I was a betting man, I think we’d have a heck of a shot,” Frank said.
Because the National Telecommunications and Information Administration received an influx of applications – 2,200 requesting $28 billion – officials in each state will make recommendations to federal agencies.
Frank said he’s talked at length with a representative responsible for the Pennsylvania state decision, who will choose about a dozen projects to champion, he says.
Panel member Doug Faith, COO of Conshohocken-based s2s Communications, told the audience that although he was a reviewer for the federal broadband stimulus money, he could offer little detail on the process.
Much of the conversation Tuesday evening centered around Wireless Philadelphia and the obstacles facing Philadelphia’s digital divide.
“We blew it big time,” Councilman Bill Green, vice chair of the Technology Committee said of the chance for the city to purchase Wireless Philadelphia assets from Earthlink in 2008. “The City of Philadelphia should have bought this network. We could have done it but decided not to for policy reasons.”
The panel was rarely tense, except on a few occasions when activism butted heads with politics.
“As we move online, the problems the city and country face [around digital inclusion] will be inextricable from social problems,” Media Mobilizing Project’s Todd Wolfson said in opening statements.
Wolfson referenced Margaret Pugh O’Mara’s Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley, which contrasts the high-tech environments of Silicon Valley and Philadelphia after World War II and why the former was successful and the latter not.
O’Mara writes that it was because Philadelphia’s academic institutions, like Penn, silenced poor and working class communities in an attempt to lure brains to the city, that it failed to become a high-tech leader.
“We need to move forward with this lesson in mind,” he told the crowd.
It was a thoughtful lesson for the panel, organized for Philly’s One Web Day broadband inclusion celebration, which kicked-off last night and will provide computer literacy training to Philadelphia citizens today and Thursday.
Councilman Bill Green disagreed with Wolfson and said it was education first and broadband access later, that played the most important role in solving issues of poverty.
The crowd was not shy in taking the opportunity to challenge and question policymakers.
“Education is being transformed by technology,” one audience member said to Green, leaning over the chair in front of him. “There needs to be a better connection between what actually happens with community groups and with the [anecdotal] conversation going on here.”
Pew was candid about his participation in Wireless Philadelphia as Chairman of the initiative. He discussed his original recommendation to former Mayor John Street to wire the city utilizing already installed city infrastructure, much like the city’s current broadband stimulus applications. Instead, Street decided on building a new wireless network.
Pew explained his involvement in acquiring Earthlink’s infrastructure after the company pulled out of its contract, calling it a waste for it to be dismantled. He said that the chance of a network of such magnitude being built again, in these economic times, is minuscule.
One audience member questioned – to laughter from the crowd – if commercial networks like Comcast and AT&T had a hand in influencing broadband policy, like the city not becoming an anchor tenant in Wireless Philadelphia.
Pew said that the city had no biases toward carriers when it made that deal with Earthlink because it had to issue a public request for proposal, and that the contract, which he negotiated, never intended for the City to become an anchor tenant.
Green – who was instrumental in the Network Acquisition deal – pointed to Wireless Philadelphia’s success since it was acquired by Network Acquisition. The free WiFi network has exploded from 10,000 unique users to 170,000, making what Green says is the largest WiFi hotspot in the U.S.
Though the City is in talks with Network Acquisition to purchase wireless assets should federal stimulus money be awarded here, Frank reiterated that the city was not in a position to provide universal access to 50 percent of households in Philadelphia that are not connected with broadband. Instead, he hopes to “chip away” at the problem by connecting community resources like schools, libraries and recreation centers.
Pew agreed that universal access is not the answer for municipal governments.
“The city may decide to build a well,” he said. “But it’s the community’s responsibility to figure out how to get there to fill their buckets.”