Archive for media

Or does Wireless Philadelphia owe EarthLink money?

Earlier this week, I wrote about the money that EarthLink owes the city of Philadelphia. That’s separate from the portion of revenue that EL is supposed to pay directly to Wireless Philadelphia: the greater of 5% or $1 of each subscription payment. (Has any of that money been paid?) What most people don’t know is that Wireless Philadelphia is actually required to pay some of that money back to EarthLink.

One of the most convoluted sections of the WP-Earthlink Contract covers the structure of payments to PECO, the local utility. WP agreed to cover half of all electricity costs for EarthLink’s wireless routers. WP’s payments would be deferred for the first two years so they could get going, but then the debt from those first two years would have to be paid to EarthLink over the following eight. By my reckoning, those two years are up this fall. How much does Wireless Philadelphia owe?

The motivation for structuring the payments the way they did was to guilt trip PECO into giving EarthLink a better rate. PECO wanted to charge high rates and a new account fee for each of the 5000+ wireless routers. This arrangement made it Greg Goldman’s job to convince them to give EarthLink a better deal. This matter was still not resolved when I interviewed Mr. Goldman in October 2006. Was it ever worked out?

Whatever they worked out would have blown to hell by the unexpected 40 percent increase in wireless nodes, which would bring a similar increase in the electricity usage. The routers use electricity even if no one is using the network. At this point it’s anyone’s guess how much Wireless Philadelphia will owe to EarthLink and PECO come fall. But given how many subscribers there are, you can be sure that WP’s share of the revenue will not cover it.

And that’s not the only expense WP needs to worry about. On top of this debt to EarthLink and any new utility charges, WP received a $1.4 million loan from the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC) to get off the ground before it even selected EarthLink’s bid.

In City Council hearings in 2006, Councilmember O’Neill expressed concern that this loan would turn into a grant. Has this happened? If so, it represents a significant contribution from the taxpayers of Philadelphia, on top of the $463,000 spent on Civitium and another $800,000 ($200,000 per year from 2004 to 2008) on a project manager in the Mayor’s Office of Information Services.

To be clear, I’m not making any judgments on the worthiness of any of these payments. I’m simply pointing out the taxpayer dollars that have been spent on a project that was supposed to cost the city nothing.

If the debt to PIDC has not been forgiven, then that’s $1.4 million Wireless Philadelphia owes back to the taxpayers of Philadelphia, on top of its debt to EarthLink. Greg Goldman has bills to pay.

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Is EarthLink even paying it’s Wireless Philadelphia bills?

If you read the New York Times or keep up on municipal wireless, you saw this weekend’s article, “Hopes for Wireless Cities Fade as Internet Providers Pull Out.”

The key takeaway from the article is Sascha Meinrath’s statement, “The entire for-profit model is the reason for the collapse in all these projects.” It wasn’t wireless technology or municipal engagement that went awry, but the private franchise business model. If you want an expanded discussion of that idea, check out Sascha’s recent article, “Municipal Wireless Success Demands Public Involvement, Experts Say.”

But the second thing you should note is a factual error – and not just because it’s the New York Times. The article says, “In Philadelphia, the agreement was that the city would provide free access to city utility poles for the mounting of routers.” In fact, EarthLink is supposed to be paying $2 million up front plus $2 per pole per month for access to 5,000 poles.

The second half of that $2 million is due one year after Proof of Concept Acceptance, according to Section 7.1.1.3 of the PAID-EarthLink Street Light Use Agreement. (PAID is the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development, which owns the poles.) Counting from the press release from May 24, 2007, that deadline is in about 8 weeks. Any bets on whether the City’s going to collect?

I’m not surprised that the Times wouldn’t check the original contracts or even Becca Vargo Daggett’s comprehensive but readable summary. I’m surprised that the City isn’t making it loud and clear that EarthLink owes them money and they intend to collect.

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Vote for the PPH mashup proposal: “The Human Side of the Digital Divide”

Netsquared is holding a “mashup challenge” to find the best ideas for merging different sets of data. I submitted a proposal on behalf of the Digital Expansion Initiative titled “The Human Side of the Digital Divide.”

The proposal is to take the stories we’re gathering from people with marginal access to the Internet and put them in the context of  data about both Internet infrastructure and poverty. Follow the link for more information.

We could win $100,000, but we need you to vote! First you have to log in, then you have to cast at least 5 votes for any one of your votes to count. So, in addition to voting for our proposal, you should vote for these 4 other ones from our media activism community:

Help us all move on to the next round!

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What now for Wireless Philadelphia?

It is now common knowledge that EarthLink has failed to live up to its agreement to build a citywide wireless network for the people of Philadelphia. Fortunately, the Network Agreement gives Wireless Philadelphia various mechanisms to hold the Atlanta-based corporation accountable. For example, WP can declare a “Dark Day” for the system if there is significant outage and compel EarthLink to remedy the situation. Yet WP has not exercised any of these provisions, even though these are clearly dark days for Wireless Philadelphia.

In December, Philadelphia Chief Information Officer Terry Phillis and Wireless Philadelphia Chief Executive Officer went before City Council and assured the members that EarthLink was still hard at work building out the wireless network throughout the city. They promised EarthLink would resolve all of its subscribers’ problems. It is now clear the information they provided was false.

In January, Mr. Phillis told Computerworld that as early as November when EarthLink said it was considering “strategic alternatives” for its municipal wireless division, he understood that “Wi-Fi is no longer in their strategic initiatives, and they wouldn’t make that statement if they were continuing here.”

EarthLink recently affirmed that the project is up for sale. In November, they valued their entire municipal division at $40 million. In a recent filing, they announced losses of $32 million just in the last quarter of 2007. Plus they are hemorrhaging what few subscribers they have. Their primary assets, the thousands of wireless routers on light poles throughout Philadelphia, function poorly and are hard to upgrade. Overall, the Philadelphia network is not an attractive product. Moreover, any buyer would need approval from City Council, where there is little love lost for EarthLink.

Yet the project’s goals – bridging the digital divide, stimulating the local economy, and increasing the efficiency of local government – remain as critical as ever. And federal and state governments still offer more roadblocks than assistance. Unfortunately, the current plan locks the city into a single solution to all of these problems: the stalled, malfunctioning EarthLink network.

Wireless Philadelphia and Mayor Michael Nutter should not wait for a proposal from EarthLink. Neither should the people who this project was originally intended to serve. “We still believe in the vision of an entire city connected,” says Todd Wolfson of the Media Mobilizing Project, which is training new immigrants to make and distribute videos over the wireless network. “But it is going to require a holistic plan that goes beyond the now-tarnished silver bullet offered by former CIO Dianah Neff.”

Greg Goldman recently told The Bulletin, “There are creative ways to re-envision the model.” It is hard to guess what that could mean, but he makes clear that the City will not step in to take over the network.

With finding a buyer unlikely and municipal ownership out of the question, the best hope is that EarthLink will donate the system to a local nonprofit. It is the only option that City Council would look on favorably and the company’s only chance to garner positive publicity. The tax write-off would probably do as much for EarthLink’s bottom line as a fire sale would.

The challenge for this option is that no single organization in Philadelphia has the capacity for such an undertaking or could marshal enough community support. Wireless Philadelphia, which was originally founded to own the network and is supposed to be managing it, is mired in politics and has no technical expertise. To go forward, Philadelphia’s many community technology organizations should come together in shared ownership of the network. Wireless Philadelphia, which has done valuable work in identifying and partnering with some of these groups, could be the vehicle for this, though it would need to be completely restructured.

However the project proceeds, the men who assured City Council in December that everything was on track now lack credibility. Terry Phillis is a holdover from the previous administration, a sad sign that Mayor Nutter is content with the status quo on this issue. Greg Goldman has been apologizing for EarthLink for the past year despite obvious warning signs that the company was neglecting its obligations to the people of Philadelphia. With a new beginning on the horizon, the project needs new leadership. If we act now, we can brighten these dark days for Wireless Philadelphia.

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Report from the Queens hearing of the Broadband Advisory Committee

The NYC Broadband Advisory Committee held its fourth public hearing on Monday, March 3, at LaGuardia Community College in Queens. Much thanks to New York Greater Metropolitan Area chapter of the Internet Society for documenting the hearing. His detailed summary and a full audio recording is available on the ISOC-NY website.

The highlight for me was when former Senator Larry Pressler, who authored the 1996 Telecommunications Act said, “If it is found that in New York City the spectrum and the broadband is not totally out there, that would be a tale that needs to be told.” Indeed.

Councilmember Brewer asked him a question about E-Rate, the federal program to fund Internet access in schools and libraries, and he agreed that it needs to be revisited. As it is now, the federal government tightly restricts E-Rate funds so they can’t even be used to cover access for administrators; they can’t pay for necessary hardware or training; and they can’t support public access, even though schools pay for bandwidth to be available 100% of the time while school is only in session about 15% of the time. In other words, E-Rate is easy money for the big Internet service providers.

If the BAC, or even just Brewer, is pondering reforms to federal policy, that is an extremely positive development. To date, very few municipal broadband task forces have addressed themselves to this area, even though there are many current regulations that hamstring their efforts to improve local infrastructure and expand high speed Internet access. Any worthwhile municipal broadband plan must include policy reform at the federal level.

Although I had already testified at the first hearing in the Bronx, I testified in Queens to offer new suggestions for increasing public engagement in the process, specifically among immigrants who are not aware the process is going on or who cannot attend daytime hearings.

I tried to play a couple of clips from interviews we’ve done – Arturo Mendoza, a construction worker who lives in Ridgewood, Queens, (in Spanish) and Beverly from Canarsie, Brooklyn (in English) – but we ran into technical difficulties. Ironically, that just drove home the point that we need to do more to include people like Arturo and Beverly – working people with limited access to the Internet – in the city’s broadband expansion deliberations, since they’re the ones the process is supposed to serve. (Many more clips are available on the DEI section of the PPH website.)

Councilmember Brewer responded positively to that notion and said she had just been discussing it with Andrew Friedman of Make the Road NYC. She suggested a supplemental event with that specific focus. PPH is now exploring that possibility with our partner organizations. I’m also preparing a brief to distribute to the city’s ethnic press through the New York Community Media Alliance.

I should be clear that, while some people who should be a part of the process have not been able to participate, the Broadband Advisory Committee, Brewer’s office, and Diamond Consultants (working for the NYC Economic Development Corporation) have included a vast range of perspectives. Diamond surveyed library patrons in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, and a random sampling of public housing residents from across the city. While the library survey was only in English, the NYCHA survey, which was distributed by mail, was in English, Spanish, simplified Chinese, and Russian.

Those surveys are each only one of many sources of information for Diamond’s report, which could be released anytime in the coming weeks. The report will include a presentation of findings, as well as a complete plan for expanding Internet access throughout the five boroughs. The Broadband Advisory Committee is also supposed to present a report within a year of its inception, which would be April 17 if you start the clock from their first meeting.

The BAC will be holding its Staten Island hearing in the near future. I’ll post details when I have them.

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Slingshot Hip Hop showing in NYC

New Yorkers: Your first chance to see Slingshot Hip Hop:

Slingshot Hip Hop is the highly-anticipated documentary about Palestinian hip hop. It premiered recently at Sundance to standing ovations. I had the opportunity to see the finished film in Oakland recently.

It was eye opening for me, as it will be for anyone who has not witnessed or experienced the brutality of Israeli occupation. Beyond that, it is one of the best documentaries on hip hop I have seen. It deftly captures the relationship between the violence of everyday life and music as a form of nonviolent resistance. I look forward to the impact this movie will have on the world.

Jackie Salloum, director of Slingshot Hip Hop, was a keynote speaker at Allied Media Conference 2006. She discussed her experience making the film and later showed clips of the work in progress. If Slingshot Hip Hop is the kind of media you want to learn more about, register for Allied Media Conference 2008.

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Queens public hearing of the NYC Broadband Advisory Committee

On Monday, the New York City Broadband Advisory Committee is holding its Queens public hearing:

WHEN: Monday, March 3, 2008, from 1pm to 4pm
WHERE: LaGuardia Community College, 31-10 Thomson Avenue, Long Island City, NY 11101

Sorry for the late notice, but I just found out yesterday. It’s not even posted on the BAC’s blog. (I’m actually getting an error when I try to load the page right now.)

If you have any questions, post them as comments below. I hope you can be there, though once again the hearing is in the middle of the day. I plan to attend and record it to audio, so stay tuned for updates.

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PPH at the GMC

This Sunday is the 5th annual New York City Grassroots Media Conference. You should attend!

PPH will be there in force. Abdulai, Radha, and Felix from our Community News Production Insitute are doing a workshop on “Reporting from the streets: Workers Redefine Media Justice.”

Radio Rootz, our youth program, is doing a workshop on creating a vox pop, which is like a quick way to capture the views and voices of multiple people on the street. The workshop is not listed in the conference program, but it’s at 12:15pm in room c112.

We’ll be handing out flyers with info about the Rootz workshop. We’ll also be handing out flyers letting people know that they can invite the Digital Expansion Initiative to visit their organization to discuss the city’s plans for expanding access to the Internet. There are big things on the horizon for your computer. If you don’t know about it, drop us a line.

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What does the DTV Transition mean for New York City?

My latest column for Gotham Gazette is on the government-mandated transition to digital television (DTV). It takes you through all of the places where this process can go wrong: the coupons the government is handing out for the digital converter boxes, your TV, your antenna, the broadcaster, and the public education.

Since we published the article, one more snafu has come to light. Everyone I spoke to recommended getting a coupon and a converter and setting up your TV as soon as possible. However, the $40 coupons the government is offering expire 90 days from when they’re mailed. I don’t know why they put an expiration date on them.

It wouldn’t be too much of an issue except the Echostar converter box that is set to retail for $39.99 – the only hope a consumer has to avoid an out-of-pocket expense for this transition – won’t hit the market for another 4 months.

So if you act fast, you’ll have less choice of what kind of converter to purchase. But if you wait, you’ll have less time to fix any problem you have getting a digital picture on your TV.

One other part of the story that didn’t make it into the article but is worth considering is the impact the digital transition will have on tinkering and hobbyists. This came up in my interview with the engineer from WNYW. It was clear that he’d been tinkering with transmitters and electronics his whole life and he lamented the barrier that digital technology posed to anyone getting into that.

Digital signals either work or they don’t. Analog has a grey area that invites tweaking. Most of the digital technology is proprietary and built on secrets, while analog is right in front of you on the motherboard. It’s not easy to understand transistors and capacitors and math and physics, but if you can learn by poking it and assessing the feedback in a way that’s much harder to do with digital.

The WNYW engineer sounded almost wistful when he said that he never understood those Star Trek episodes where a society that had in its possession some advanced technology nevertheless slipped into a primitive state because they couldn’t figure out how to operate or repair the machinery. He always figured you could figure it out through tinkering. But now that he’s installing his station’s new digital transmitters, he sees how alien and impenetrable technology can be.

From a current-day consumer perspective, it’s most absurd that the government coupon and education programs would be so impenetrable. But there may also be a time when we lament not being able to tune a TV with a paper clip or build a radio with a soldering iron and grit.

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Two Steps Forward to an Open Internet

Note: This is my contribution to “Open Internet Week” on the Free Press Action Network. Anyone can join in and start posting on the site, so please do.

This is an auspicious week for champions of an open Internet in the United States. On Tuesday, Representatives Ed Markey (D-MA) and Chip Pickering (R-MS) introduced the “Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2008” (HR 5353). And on Friday, Media Alliance and a strong cohort of Bay Area organizations are hosting the Oakland Digital Inclusion Summit (ODIS).

If you’re in the Bay Area and you care about the open Internet, you should absolutely come to Laney College on Friday for this summit. The event starts at 10:00am, goes to 6:00, and is free.

Sadly, for these steps forward, the Senate has taken a step back this week by passing a version of the federal eavesdropping bill that grants immunity to the telcos that broke the law to participate in the Bush administration’s illegal domestic spying. The House can still stand tall in conference committee, but time is running out.

The Internet Freedom Preservation Act would require the FCC to ensure net neutrality on the Internet. If I could take a pen to it, I would revise section 3(4) of the bill, which proscribes favoritism “based upon its source, ownership, or destination on the Internet” to include type of content. But I think that’s covered in other sections and overall it’s a wonderful and principled piece of legislation.

The bill mandates that the FCC hold at least 8 summits across the country over the course of the year to gather public input on Internet policy. The measure even specifies a 30-day advance notice for the summits so the commission can’t cheat its way around the public engagement.

As I said, the people of Oakland are not waiting for the FCC to come to them. And in contrast to an FCC hearing where the public submits testimony before the dais, tomorrow’s Oakland Summit includes a variety of formats to strengthen horizontal networks among the many local community-based digital inclusion efforts.

There are many measures that I hope will have their day in Congress in 2008. The Community Broadband Act would preempt state bans on government-funded, publicly-accessible broadband infrastructure. The Broadband Census Act, also from Rep. Markey, would greatly improve the federal government’s collection of data on Internet access (though Markey traded a specific 2 Mbps measure of broadband that was in the original draft in exchange for industry and bipartisan support, giving basic DSL service a reprieve).

I’m looking forward to 2009, when we might see the return of vital federal programs like the funding for Community Technology Centers (which Bush cut in 2002) and the Technology Opportunity Program (which Bush ended in 2004).

The potential downside to federal funding is that it could all wind up in the coffers of a single, dubious nonprofit like One Economy or Connect Kentucky that work in tandem with telco incumbents. To counter that, we need to educate lawmakers about the healthy variety of existing solutions, make the government grant process more accessible, and increase the capacity of community-based organizations to respond to requests for proposals (RFPs).

In using the “digital inclusion” framework, we are saying that we need to address the digital divide at the levels of Internet access or deployment, hardware provision, training and education, content production, and advocacy and organizing. And we are quick to demand that municipal broadband efforts facilitate or fund all of these areas. But our smaller organizations are only capable of one or two pieces of this work. And when we do collaborate, the tendency is to work within our specific discipline where we share a constituency, a culture, and funders.

We should be collaborating and interconnecting across disciplines, combining the best our community has to offer so we can offer a coherent, full-spectrum solution built on principles of efficiency, localism, and openness. We need to make the case that our locally-specific, community-based approaches are more effective than a top-down, industry-driven, cookie cutter solution.

Gatherings like the Oakland Summit are an important step towards making this happen. Such collaborations are the key to fulfilling the promises spelled out in the Internet Freedom Preservation Act and to laying the groundwork for more positive Internet policies in the coming years.

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