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Internet Access For All
When telecommunications companies moved to block Philadephia's citywide Wi-Fi deployment in 2005, many people expected that would be the end of the attempt to provide low-income residents and small businesses with affordable Internet access. Not city CIO Dianah Neff. She mobilized a massive lobbying effort to counter the corporate interests behind the efforts to stop the city's plan.
Neff chairs Philadelphia's wireless committee, which has struck a deal to have EarthLink Inc. build a 135-square-mile wireless network by next December. This would make Philadelphia the largest U.S. city to launch such a network for public and commercial use. Wireless Philadelphia, as the project is known, grew out of Mayor John Street's Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, a $1.6 billion strategy to rebuild Philadelphia's neighborhoods. The theory is that affordable wireless Internet access will bring businesses to Philadelphia and, more important, give low-income residents access to the Internet for $10 a month, with small businesses likely paying no more than $20 a month. EarthLink would run the network and share revenue with the city.
The goal is to make high-speed Internet access available everywhere in the city and to everyone. While about 90% of households in high-income neighborhoods have Internet access, only 10% to 15% of low-income areas have it. "Children and adults in these communities need access just like the higher-income communities to stay current with what's going on in the world and to stay relevant in the workplace," Neff says. To make this happen, the wireless committee put together a business plan for the wireless initiative based on focus groups and surveys by city neighborhood groups.
But its biggest challenge was countering House Bill 30 in the Pennsylvania Legislature, which would prohibit municipal governments from deploying commercial broadband services. Verizon Communications Inc., the local telecom carrier for most of Pennsylvania, was a strong proponent of the legislation, arguing that government shouldn't be competing with the private sector. "I knew if we didn't do something fast, all of our efforts would have been killed," Neff says.
Despite a major campaign against the bill, it passed both the state House and Senate. At that point, Neff says, the mayor contacted the governor, and Neff and wireless committee members in one week got 3,000 citizens, businesses, and other organizations to call, write, and E-mail Gov. Edward Rendell, urging that he veto the bill. He didn't. But Verizon was convinced to waive its right to build the network and let Philadelphia proceed with the project.
The campaign for wireless access is indicative of how Neff approaches her job-with a lot of thought and tenacity, says Crafton Timmerman, Philadelphia's director of public-safety technologies. "She sets a very high bar, but she lets her staff reach and exceed that bar by setting their own objectives," says Timmerman, who reports to Neff.
Neff, 57, spent 14 years in the private sector followed by 17 years in government. During a stint in Palo Alto, Calif., a decade ago, she designed the first Web site for a major U.S. city. "That's how I fell in love with the Web," she recalls.
Since coming to Philadelphia, her IT team relaunched the city's Web site so residents could pay fees and taxes online. To date, more than 25,000 transactions have been made online, resulting in almost $4 million in revenue collected for the city. Neff's plans for 2006 include working with the wireless committee to equip low-income communities in Philadelphia with 10,000 new and recycled computers, along with training and support. Cheap Internet access doesn't do much good in communities that can't afford computers.
So far, Philadelphia's wireless network is mostly vision and little traffic. The committee has to get it built and enough traffic flowing that it can fund efforts like free computers. Can they pull it off? Neff has knocked down obstacles to get things this far. And she's intent on making sure more Philadelphians can get onto the Internet and put it to work.
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