Philadelphia Wi-Fi Plans Move Forward
Agreement with Verizon will allow deployment of a citywide
Stephen Lawson, IDG News Service
Thursday, December 02, 2004
The city of Philadelphia has reached an agreement with Verizon
Communications that will let the municipal government deploy a
citywide Wi-Fi network, but a carrier-backed bill that would let
incumbent carriers block such projects has been signed into law
by Pennsylvania's governor.
Philadelphia announced earlier this year that it plans to deploy
a wireless broadband network beginning in June 2005 and charge
subscribers to use it. Pennsylvania House Bill 30, a broad telecommunications
act signed into law this week by Governor Edward Rendell, gives
incumbent local carriers such as Verizon the right to keep local
governments from setting up paid services like Philadelphia's
after January 1, 2006. On Tuesday, Verizon waived this right of
first refusal on the Philadelphia project, according to representatives
of Verizon and of the city's mayor, John Street.
At issue is the availability of broadband Internet access to
residents of Philadelphia, where city CIO Dianah Neff says about
60 percent of the neighborhoods don't yet have high-speed data
service. The city aims to fill in gaps in broadband availability,
such as in low-income neighborhoods, at an estimated price of
$15 to $25 per month, according to Neff.
The new law re-enacts and expands a part of Pennsylvania's Public
Utility Code that, among other things, mandates broadband access
for every resident by 2015.
Earlier versions of the bill banned local governments from offering
broadband services for pay. The version signed into law this week
allows existing services to continue and gives governments a one-year
window to develop them. After that point, it requires governments
to offer the incumbent carrier the right to provide the service.
Free services are not affected by the law.
Verizon believes the Philadelphia project is protected by the
one-year window but the city sought greater assurance that Verizon
would not fight it, says company spokesperson Sharon Shaffer.
Philadelphia's agreement with Verizon will allow the city to
roll out the network as planned, according to Barbara Grant, the
mayor's director of communications. The city intends to finish
the estimated $7 million to $10 million deployment by June 2006.
"We think that what we did today provides a good model for
how business and government can work together to assure that a
public good is provided," Grant says. The network, which
will use a wireless mesh to link Wi-Fi access points, will promote
economic development as well as providing high-speed data for
schools and low-income residents and others, she says.
Opposing Point of View
However, the chief counsel of a state senator who represents
part of Philadelphia takes a dim view of the new law.
"This leaves all the rest of the municipalities in the state
pretty much on their own," says Christopher Craig, chief
counsel for state Senator Vincent Fumo. If those cities want to
roll out their own paid services, the local incumbent will be
able to dictate terms. Governments should be able to choose service
partners based on cost and quality just as private companies do,
"This is all about Verizon being able to do this where they
want, when they want and how they want," Craig says.
Verizon opposes paid services offered by cities and municipalities
on the grounds that governments have unfair advantages, such as
being able to tap into public funds and not having to pay taxes,
"With so many competitors entering the marketplace and other
companies' businesses, we simply believe the same rules should
apply to all the players," Shaffer says. Though Verizon is
the largest incumbent carrier in Pennsylvania, there are 37 carriers
of all sizes in the state's carrier organization, the Pennsylvania
Telephone Association, she says.