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Philly CIO: Public Wi-Fi Needed To Close Digital Divide

Philadelphia is fulfilling an important obligation to its citizens by creating a citywide wireless network, and opposition from telecommunications companies is 'creepy,' the city's top technology officer says.
'It's Creepy'

Neff accused the telecoms of being hypocritical in their opposition to municipal wireless projects.

"Their big argument is that government can get tax-free bonds to finance this," she said. "We're not financing this with city dollars. I laugh at that argument because, if you look at (Pennsylvania telecom laws), there's billions in subsidies (to the ILECs) to help them build out their networks. They never fight against subsidies. In fact, they lobby hard for subsidies, so it's like they're talking out both sides of their mouth."

She said that the law passed in Pennsylvania will make it harder for municipalities to do what the people want them to do.

"Government is elected to meet the needs of communities, so why should government have to go to a local exchange carrier and ask permission (to install a wireless network)? It's creepy to me, but they're deep-pocketed lobbyists."

The recently-passed Pennsylvania law gives the telecom operators two months after a city proposes a network to say if they are planning to do something similar and to veto the municipal project, according to Neff. Then, they have 14 months to build the new network plus they can get a 12 month extension. Plus, there are no requirements in the law that the telecoms do things such as serve the specific needs of schools or public health.

Nor do the telecoms have to match the technical specifications of the cities. So, for instance, they would not have to insure mobility or a specific speed for the network, according to Neff. As part of the final passage of the law, Verizon Communications said it would grant Philadelphia a waiver saying it would not prevent the project. But that didn't take away the bad taste, Neff said.

"They say they like competition, but only as long as they control the wire," Neff said. "If they have to compete in an open marketplace, they don't like competition."

A New Model

At any rate, Verizon will still be free to compete after the city's network is built, Neff emphasized.

"When you see our business model, you'll see that we haven't limited competition," she said. "We're not looking to give all this to one carrier -- we've argued that a monopoly isn't best. We've always said we want a public-private partnership. We'll partner with the private sector to build and maintain the network."

More than that, though, she said that there still will be a role for private providers.

"We have 430 wireless ISPs and ISPs today," she said. "Some of them are very small, just serving specific networks. We want to make sure they're still there and can fill needs of those who can't take advantage of our infrastructure."

She also said that new technology, such as streaming media, might be best handled by other access technologies.

"If people want video e-mail and don't need mobility, (cable) will be attractive," she said. "Or, maybe they'll do both so they can roam around the city. But a very large portion of our population can't afford to have digital broadband over cable or DSL and they need a low-cost alternative."