Wi-Fi for the People

Philadelphia plans to become the biggest wireless hot spot ever

8 min read

If you look hard enough, you can see the future of Philadelphia high above the streets. It’s a tiny white box with two antennas poking up from the roof of a café in Love Park, in the heart of the city’s main business district. Smaller than a shoebox, the radio transceiver and router allow anyone nearby with a laptop to surf the Internet. Anybody can simply boot up and go online—no wires, no muss, no fuss. Philadelphia—all of it—is going Wi-Fi.

Wi-Fi has been around for at least seven years now. You can get the service at little or no cost in countless airports, coffee shops, and chain restaurants. And now entire cities are blanketing themselves with the technology, making it available at low cost to one and all. They’re doing it because they see citywide Wi-Fi as a source of two kinds of booms: economic, because they hope it will put them on the high-tech map, attracting investment and brainworkers; social, because they hope to usher the poor as well as the rich into the same culturally vibrant world.

Atlanta, San Francisco, Chicago, Taipei, and Paris are but a few of the cities that are bringing Wi-Fi, in some capacity, to their citizens. But none has positioned itself more aggressively than Philadelphia. The city has an ambitious plan to transform itself into the biggest hot spot in the world.

Instead of having to hunker down in a café to surf the Net, people will be able to go anywhere within the city’s 350-square-kilometer boundaries and, for an estimated cost of US $20 per month, hop online. Data will flow at a speed of approximately 1 megabyte, both upstream and downstream. The service, expected to be finished by August 2007, is designed to work with laptops, personal digital assistants, and other wireless-enabled devices. There’s even talk of the service extending into the subway system.

But there are hitches and controversies. Buildings will need special equipment to let the wireless system inside. Telecoms are crying foul. Underserved communities are demanding computer training. Skeptics question whether a municipality should be meddling with Wi-Fi in the first place. ”If I was resident of Philadelphia, where you’ve got problems with schools and roads,” says David McClure, president and chief executive of the U.S. Internet Industry Association, ”I’d be concerned that you’re investing in a network that may not bring close to the [expected] returns.” Indeed, it is not clear that if you build it, very many people will come; Taipei’s service, though offered at a low price, has attracted few subscribers.

Philadelphia is at the heart of a burgeoning clash between city governments (which want to bring low-cost connectivity to the underserved) and telecommunications giants (which aren’t going to quietly surrender the profits they’ve been making by providing Internet access). Mayor John Street initiated the project in March 2004 as part of his program to transform poor neighborhoods by bridging a cultural and digital divide. In Philadelphia, more than 90 percent of households have access to the Internet, but in low-income areas that figure drops below 25 percent.

Not every new technology needs government programs to increase penetration. Just look at cellphones. But Philadelphia’s plan is not designed just to put computers into underserved areas; it also aims to teach people how to use them.

There would be benefits for the city itself. In this post-Katrina era, cities are more sensitive to the need for a robust, low-cost telecommunications system, especially in times of emergency. The city hopes that by giving emergency teams immediate, reliable communications, the system will shorten response times and economize on resources, thus saving money.

There’s also an intangible benefit. California has Silicon Valley and New York City has Silicon Alley, but Philadelphia has had little to show in high tech. It ranked 42nd in a survey of 50 wired cities conducted recently by Forrester Research, in Cambridge, Mass. ”Right now, Philadelphia is in the middle of the road,” says Forrester analyst Josh Bernoff. ”It does not stand out on either end. Being first to do this [provide citywide Wi-Fi] would put it on the map.”

Philadelphia is far from the only city on such a mission. In New York, with the city’s plan in flux, a nonprofit volunteer group called NYC Wireless has taken the battle into its own hands. It has worked to bring free, wireless access to 10 city parks, including the ones at Union Square and Tompkins Square. Meanwhile, Google has been sponsoring Web access in New York’s trendy Bryant Park.

Google also struck a five-year agreement in November 2005 to provide free wireless access to Mountain View, the Silicon Valley city where it is based. In fact, Google plans to pay the city $12 600 for the privilege of installing 400 wireless transmitters on streetlights throughout the area. The motivation wasn’t purely altruistic, of course. Google wanted an infrastructure to provide surfing for its employees in Mountain View. For other sponsors and Internet service providers, municipal Wi-Fi is simply a good business opportunity.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit corporation Wireless Philadelphia has been steadily trudging on. In October 2005, the organization announced that it had selected EarthLink, the Atlanta-based ISP, to build and manage the wireless network. No tax dollars are to be used to build the system’s infrastructure. Instead, EarthLink and Wireless Philadelphia have formed partnerships between public and private groups. Under the terms, a percentage of the income derived from the user fees will go back to Wireless Philadelphia.

For Jamil Assaf-Bautista, going wireless isn’t just about improving the city’s image; it’s about access for the little guy. As president of Logistics Management Consultants, a high-tech consulting firm in Philadelphia, Assaf-Bautista sees every day what happens to those left behind. ”Our streets used to have broken bottles and needles everywhere,” he says. Now that the streets are cleaner, he adds, the next logical step is to provide wireless access. As part of a pilot program for Wireless Philadelphia, Assaf-Bautista is providing technical and management support for key providers in his community, such as Kensington Hospital.

There are plenty of challenges, because as the first city to go Wi-Fi, the only mistakes Philadelphia is going to be learning from are its own. The first unanticipated problem came in raising the estimated $18 million in start-up costs, without spending a single tax dollar. That meant looking to both taxable bonds and private contributions. Six vendors, including Hewlett-Packard and Lucent, agreed to sponsor a square mile each in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, including the bodegas of North Square and the Baptist churches of West Philly. In return, the companies get good publicity and a chance to showcase their products.

Then came the attack of the wireless carriers. After the city announced the Wireless Philadelphia plan, Sprint, BellSouth, Verizon, and other carriers published a scathing attack on city-run Wi-Fi called ”Not in the Public Interest: The Myth of Municipal Wi-Fi Networks.” The report suggests that the projects will benefit only city employees, not the underserved citizens. The real motivation behind the opposition, of course, is money. In Philadelphia, there was essentially a duopoly of providers: Comcast and Verizon. The Wireless Philadelphia plan requires at least three ISPs, and there may be as many as 10.

When lobbyists quickly persuaded Pennsylvania legislators to pass a bill forbidding a local government from offering free telecom services, Wireless Philadelphia supporters lobbied them to denounce the bill in some 3000 e-mail messages and telephone calls. Their campaign helped Governor Edward G. Rendell negotiate a waiver for the city. The plan was officially on its way.

Now others states and carriers are watching to see if and how Philadelphia succeeds with its plan. If it does work, you’ll flip open your laptop, set your wireless network to Wi-Fi Philadelphia, sign in with your e-mail address and password, and see your default home page on your screen. Voilà, you’re online.

That simple act, however, will rest on a complex system, a hybrid of Wi-Fi, which delivers the service to end users, and WiMax (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access), a broader, faster form of wireless networking with speeds of up to 75 megabits per second and a range of up to 30 miles.

There were practical reasons for using the IEEE 802.11 b/g standard, Wi-Fi, to reach the end users. On the Wi-Fi end, the delivery will come via 3500 radio devices, each roughly the size of a shoebox, with two 30-centimeter antennas and a range of roughly 90 meters. They’re small and light enough to be installed on light poles and rooftops, sparing the city the cost of digging up the streets.

The system, called a wireless mesh network, divides areas into cells, each served by a transmitter. Seven to nine of the transmitters route data to each other, either directly or through an intervening transmitter, and connect to a gateway, a transmitter small enough to fit on the back of a radio antenna. The 500-odd gateways pipe their aggregated data back to 24 devices called backhauls—each a 1.2- by 1-meter box mounted on a roof or some other high place—which in turn connect to the Internet via fiber-optic cables.

The design has advantages. Unlike cellular service, Wi-Fi is built for the transmission of digital data and can support robust delivery of, say, mug shots and fingerprints. This feature can come into play during emergencies. Also, after a destructive storm, wireless systems could be mounted and replaced without having to pull wires from the ground. But there are also some problems. Because of the short range of the local transmitters—necessary to limit interference—they cannot penetrate such obstacles as cement, steel pipes, or brick walls. Each user must therefore set up what’s called a bridge device to propagate the signal throughout the home. Bridge devices will be provided by the user’s ISP as part of the annual contract.

To ensure continuous service, the system has enough redundant capacity to allow it to ”heal” breaks. Every four seconds, each transmitter sends a signal to the connecting devices; if no reply comes, the transmitter senses the outage and reroutes the information to another cell. The entire process takes seconds. Any one section can thus be fixed without having to take down an entire segment of a network.

That feature offers more flexibility than a hard-wired network can manage, but that same openness also tends to open the way for hostile hackers. Existing Wi-Fi services have provided plenty of examples of the vulnerability. In a practice known as wardriving, a hacker equips a car with a laptop, long-range antennae and so-called sniffing software, and then hits the road in search of unprotected wireless networks. In Toronto, a wardriver was arrested for downloading child pornography while piggybacking on someone else’s network, potentially implicating the unsuspecting homeowner in his crime. In Maryland, a wardriver was convicted of trying to extort $17 million from a patent company after hacking into its network and stealing confidential information.

The Wireless Philadelphia plan would monitor only network performance, leaving the monitoring of usage to the various ISPs, which would set their own security policies. The system can support 17 layers of security, and each ISP will determine how many layers to offer its customers.

Once the infrastructure is in place, new challenges are certain to follow—particularly, making sure that even the poorest citizen can take advantage of it. The city plans to set up free wireless access in 10 percent of its territory, so that anyone—including visitors from other areas or even other cities—can use it. Yet that is not enough, observes McClure of the Internet Industry Association. ”If all it took was Internet access, we would have done it 10 years ago,” he says.

Therefore, in the first five years, Wireless Philadelphia will spend $5 million to place 10 000 computers in needy households and teach recipients how to use them in an eight-hour course. ”The training is going to be critical,” says Dianne Strunk, chief executive of the Eastern Technology Council, an organization in Wayne, Pa., made up of tech companies in the Mid-Atlantic region. But Strunk says she is skeptical that citywide Wi-Fi can be a quick fix for more complex societal issues. ”There’s a lot of evidence that teenagers use the Internet and computers primarily for instant messaging and entertainment, [instead of] for school research,” she says. ”There is other evidence that urban neighborhoods will use it primarily for gaming.”

Then again, if you’d told Andrew Carnegie a century ago that only a few poor people would use the free libraries he was then building across the world, he wouldn’t have been fazed. A few is better than none.

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