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Local Investors to Bring Free WiFi to Philadelphia

June 18, 2008

By Patrick Kerkstra, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Jun. 18–The last-minute rescue of the city’s wireless network by a group of local investors yesterday means that free outdoor Internet access is now available to all Philadelphians.

At least in theory.

In practice, the wireless network that EarthLink Inc. transferred to the as-yet-unnamed local company is slow, has spotty coverage, and is highly unreliable. And the local investors know it.

“We’re not anywhere near close to delivering a full service yet,” said local entrepreneur Richard A. Rasansky, who is on the board of the new company. “The network is not completed. It’s not so much a problem with how it’s built, it’s that it’s currently unbuilt.”

It will likely be many months before the service is anywhere near as robust as Rasansky and his partners would like, and the new company won’t promote the network or provide easier access to it until that time. Even then, the wireless signal won’t be available inside most Philadelphia homes. The technology simply isn’t designed to go through walls, and even a fully built-out network won’t change that fact.

But what the service will offer average Philadelphians — if all goes as planned — is completely free outdoor Internet access in virtually every nook and cranny of the city. It won’t be fast enough to stream movies or big audio files, but it should more than suffice for, say, a tourist who needs to look up directions.

“When it’s finished, I think the average person will be satisfied with what they’re going to get,” said Craig Settles, an industry analyst and author of a book about Philadelphia’s wireless network. “It’s a real plus to be able to stop in a city park and look up a restaurant.”

It is a far more modest goal than what EarthLink promised yet never delivered: high-speed home Internet access over WiFi, a true replacement for the hardwired services offered by the likes of Comcast and Verizon. EarthLink tried to charge $20 a month for the service, and there were precious few takers.

The new company won’t charge average users a dime. Instead, its still-developing business plan anticipates that big institutions — such as universities, hospitals and perhaps City Hall itself — will become paying customers.

It will offer those institutions a package of services, including wired Internet access for indoor use, as well as fast outdoor wireless connections for mobile applications that go well beyond checking e-mail on a laptop.

For instance, paramedics could use the enhanced wireless network to stream video of an accident victim to emergency room doctors, or firefighters could download schematics of a burning building at the site of the blaze, Settles said.

In order to provide those advanced services for big institutional customers, the new company will have to enhance the existing network, which in turn should improve the free wireless service by expanding its coverage area and making it faster and more reliable, Rasansky said.

Advertising could serve as a second revenue stream for the company, Rasansky said, with free WiFi users providing the traffic.

If Rasansky and his partners — who include CEO Derek Pew and former mayoral candidate Tom Knox — succeed, it will be a significant political win for the Nutter administration, which appeared to have soured on WiFi last month.

“We now have the potential to reach more people with this free network than any other city in the United States of America,” Mayor Nutter said at a City Hall news conference where the deal was formally announced.

Nutter was significantly less optimistic in May, when he suggested that WiFi was fast becoming obsolete. But the administration hired a Wharton professor — the professor was paid $2,500, the only public money involved in the deal — to provide an independent analysis of the network, which helped Nutter conclude the system was worth saving.

So did the perseverance of freshman City Councilman Bill Green, who was credited by all sides for reigniting interest in saving the network just as its termination seemed inevitable.

Green wants City Hall to become the new company’s biggest client. He thinks the subscription fees would pay for themselves in short order, by giving city workers access to information technology while in the field, thus improving government efficiency. The Nutter administration, however, says it has made no commitment to the new company.

Wireless Philadelphia, the local nonprofit that helped bring the network to the city in the first place, will survive under the new deal, with financial help from the new company. The organization is dedicated to bridging the digital divide between rich and poor, and will focus on getting low-income residents computers and training now that outdoor Internet access will be free.

The Media Mobilizing Project, which also aims to provide low-income residents with Internet access, is hosting a forum on the future of Philadelphia WiFi at 6:30 p.m. today at Temple University. The forum will include Green and members of the new company.

Contact staff writer Patrick Kerkstra at 215-854-2827 or pkerkstra@phillynews.com.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Philadelphia Inquirer

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